Monday, September 30, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

On Sunday, lawyers for the whistleblower whose report has sparked an impeachment inquiry posted a letter they had written on Saturday to the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph McGuire. The letter cited their "concerns that our client’s identity will be disclosed publicly and that, as a result, our client will be put in harm’s way," in part because of threats Trump himself had already made. They added,

Moreover, certain individuals have issued a $50,000 “bounty” for “any information” relating to our client’s identity. Unfortunately, we expect this situation to worsen, and to become even more dangerous for our client and any other whistleblowers, as Congress seeks to investigate this matter.

Attempts to identify the whistleblower were already underway over the weekend by people who thought they were acting on Trump's orders, in internet communities of the sort that were manipulated by Russia during the last election. As the Washington Post put it:

The president’s scornful portrayal of the whistleblower shaped and stoked the online conversation throughout the week, as it descended into a case study of the Internet at its worst — frenetic, fueled by rumor and frequently racist, misogynistic and crude. 
...After the complaint was made public Thursday morning, pro-Trump commenters guessed the whistleblower is Hispanic or Jewish or Arab or African American and, many were sure, a woman — though rarely did the commenters use such delicate terms.

Today, Trump himself explicitly said he was seeking the identity of the whistleblower

One of the protections that the whistleblower is entitled to as a matter of law is to have his or her identity kept secret from government officials who may seek revenge. These protections exist so that illegal or corrupt behavior in government can be resolved internally, rather than by public disclosure of secret information.

Why does this matter?

Sunday, September 29, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He self-medicated with retweets.

In many respects, this was a typical Sunday for Trump, in that he spent it doing nothing but tweeting and playing golf. But the nature of the tweets was unusual even by his standards.

Trump had tweeted 34 times on Sunday as of 7:18 p.m. EDT, resuming a binge that had started with 22 consecutive retweets late Saturday night. It's not a single-day record (at least as of the time this post was made), but the pattern is interesting. Virtually all of the tweets were aimed at attacking the investigation into his attempts to force Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election—the most incriminating details of which he's already admitted to

In his apparent anxiety to find supportive material, Trump ended up retweeting two "Twitter eggs"— low-follower accounts of the type that are often used for bot-farms, like the Russian ones who helped spread pro-Trump disinformation in the 2016 election. (That's not to say that the accounts Trump retweeted today are necessarily bots. One of them has three posts total over three years, and the other, to be fair, has many posts that could easily be mistaken for Trump's own work.)

Trump also retweeted a parody account that makes fun of his fear of sharks, by replacing key words with "shark." In this case, the post was from one of the "egg" accounts.

In other words, in his desperation to tweet as much pro-Trump material as he could, Trump unknowingly retweeted an anti-Trump parody account that tweeted a near-copy of a post by a bot-like account that he'd already retweeted.

Trump has 65 million Twitter followers, roughly 39 million of which are not obvious fake, spam, or bot accounts. (Trump has no control over who follows him.) He often uses Twitter to shape the news cycle, but outbursts like this weekend's more likely a form of therapy for him.

How is this a problem?

  • This really isn't healthy behavior.
  • There are other things a president is supposed to be doing besides golfing, campaigning, and trying to manage his emotional state.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to undo releasing the memo that summarizes his attempt to force the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2020 election.

Impeachment is now looking increasingly likely after a whirlwind week of revelations about alleged corruption and cover-up over Trump's attempts to get another foreign country to intervene in an election on his behalf. All of this was, of course, put into motion by a formal whistleblower complaint that Trump initially tried to suppress.

Today, Trump insisted that "The Whistleblower’s complaint is completely different and at odds from my actual conversation with the new President of Ukraine." 

As it happens, since both the Trump administration's own summary of the call and the whistleblower's complaint are now (mostly) public, this is a testable claim.

COMPLAINT: In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. ...According to the White House officials who had direct knowledge of the call, the President pressured Mr. Zelenskyy to, inter alia[,] initiate or continue an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

TRUMP [on call with Zelensky]: There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General [William Barr] would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.

COMPLAINT: The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.

TRUMP [on call with Zelensky]: I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it. I'm sure you will figure it out.

COMPLAINT: [Trump pressured Zelensky to] assist in purportedly uncovering that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine , with a specific request that the Ukrainian leader locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and examined by the U.S. cyber security firm Crowdstrike, which initially reported that Russian hackers had penetrated the DNC’s networks in 2016

TRUMP [on call with Zelensky]: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you're surrounding yourself with some of the same people.

COMPLAINT: [Trump pressured Zelensky to] meet or speak with two people the President named explicitly as his personal envoys on these matters, Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General Barr, to whom the President referred multiple times in tandem.

TRUMP [on call with Zelensky]: Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what's happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great. ...The other thing, There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it...

COMPLAINT: The President also praised Ukraine's Prosecutor General, Mr. Yuriy Lutseno, and suggested that Mr. Zelenskyy might want to keep him in his position.

TRUMP [on call with Zelensky]: Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that's really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved.

COMPLAINT: Aside from the above-mentioned “cases” purportedly dealing with the Biden family and the 2016 U.S. election, I was told by White House officials that no other “cases” were discussed.

The summary of the call mentions no other "corruption" besides Trump's conspiracy theory about Russia's innocence in interfering in the election, and what he is trying to get Ukraine to accuse the Bidens of.

Trump also said that the whistleblower "knew practically NOTHING" about the call. That's actually true: the whistleblower was reporting things he or she was told by other Trump administration officials without having heard the call him or herself. This is a huge problem for Trump, because it means that the whistleblower's other sources—which talk about the larger attempt to strong-arm Ukraine beyond the single phone call—are accurate and direct witnesses to Trump's actions.

So what?

  • Things that are true don't become false just because a president needs them to be for political purposes.
  • It's illegal and anti-American to try to get foreign governments to sabotage American elections.

Friday, September 27, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pretty much lost it over the Ukrainian shakedown call, and then things got much worse.

Trump hit send on this tweet at 7:02 A.M.

For the record: Trump did indeed refer to the Chair of the House Intelligence committee as Liddle' Adam Schiff in a tweet from 19 months ago. That is to say, Trump is correct that he included an apostrophe (which he confuses with a hyphen) after the (made-up) word "liddle." It's not clear why Trump felt that leaving the apostrophe off was so unfair, although Twitter had a lot of fun at his expense today trying to figure out why.

That said, the reason Trump is angry at Schiff today is because yesterday, Schiff summarized the White House memo in which Trump tried to strongarm the Ukrainian government into conducting an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. (Biden beats Trump in all recent national polls, sometimes by double digits.) This is how Trump explained it a little later in the day:

Schiff's statement, in which he describes the "sum and character" of that conversation as akin to a Mafia shakedown, can be seen here. He didn't "make up" the conversation because there is no transcript to deviate from—just a memo describing it.

Later today, multiple news outlets confirmed that the Ukrainian memo Schiff was referring to was not the only damning document of Trump's conversations with foreign leaders kept on a secret server. The Washington Post reported this evening that Trump told visiting Russian officials in May of 2017 that he wasn't bothered by Russia's attack on the 2016 election because in the past, the United States had interfered with other governments. (This was the same meeting where Trump revealed ultra-secret Israeli intelligence to Russia, in the process exposing Israel's sources and methods.) Three Trump administration officials confirmed to the Post that his staff made sure to hide documentation of those conversations from executive branch staff who would normally read them as part of their regular duties.

CNN also reported that Trump's conversations with the Saudi royal family, and Vladimir Putin, were given the same treatment, being stored on a server requiring codeword-level clearance to access, even though there was nothing classified about the actual contents. CNN also cited Trump administration officials in its reporting.

In other words, when Trump had non-classified discussions with Saudi or Russian officials—two governments he's known to be personally, financially beholden to—his staff put the details of those conversations on an ultra-secure server. And the reason is that because what he said was so obviously shocking and contrary to the national interest that his supporters were afraid whistleblowers would find a way to make them public.

Trump has so far refused to comment on these latest revelations, and has made no further angry tweets about how his spelling is covered by the news media.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong (and illegal) to try to hide information in the public interest by abusing the classification process.
  • Inviting foreign countries to attack American democracy is an evil act.
  • People who have done nothing wrong don't need to go to extraordinary lengths to cover up their actions.
  • Even if it was intended as a distraction, that tweet is not the product of a healthy mind.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He fantasized about killing the people who ratted him out.

This morning, the partially declassified complaint lodged by the whistleblower who learned of Trump's efforts to get a foreign government to help him in the 2020 elections was released. It revealed that the whistleblower—who described Trump's phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky with perfect accuracy—had not personally heard the call. Rather, its details were shared with the whistleblower by "half a dozen" White House staffers who had heard the call, and who were part of a much larger effort to cover up the call by putting it on a secret server. Depending on how the whistleblower's report is interpreted, somewhere between 22 and 40 people all told were involved in the call and subsequent cover-up.

In other words, Trump's actions on the call were so obviously damning that his staff took extraordinary actions to hide the evidence of what he'd done—or in the case of the whistleblower and the people who talked with him or her, to reveal it.

Trump reacted by fantasizing about the execution of anyone who had talked to the whistleblower. At a closed meeting in New York, Trump was caught on audio saying this:

Basically, that person [the whistleblower] never saw the report, never saw the call, he never saw the call — heard something and decided that he or she or whoever the hell it is — they're almost a spy. I want to know who's the person who gave the whistleblower, who's the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that's close to a spy.  
You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.

The Los Angeles Times, which broke the story and released the recording, noted that there was a smattering of laughter, but that the room of government employees mostly remained silent.

This is hardly the first time Trump has talked like a mob boss threatening revenge against an informer. He repeatedly used threatening language to try to influence potential witnesses against him in the Russia investigation. He also publicly called his former fixer Michael Cohen a "rat" while attacking the FBI for raiding Cohen's office. 

It is not illegal for White House and intelligence officials to discuss calls like this amongst themselves. It is not illegal for government employees to report crimes. According to the federal witness tampering statute, it is illegal to threaten people to prevent them from reporting or testifying about a crime.

Why should I care about this?

  • Threatening political opponents with violence is what dictators do.
  • Reporting crimes of this magnitude is the opposite of treason.
  • The president is not above the law.
  • People who haven't committed serious crimes don't engage in cover-ups.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot, in real time, that Ukraine and Russia are fighting a war.

Trump had a brief shared press conference with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at the U.N. General Assembly meeting. Naturally, virtually every question dealt with the surprisingly damning partial summary of their July 25th phone call that Trump was forced to release today. But when Trump was asked if he would commit to providing the military aid he'd held up in advance of that phone call, he said this to Zelensky:

TRUMP: And I really hope that Russia — because I really believe that President Putin would like to do something.  I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.  That would be a tremendous achievement.  And I know you’re trying to do that.

Russia is occupying Ukrainian territory and the two countries are effectively at war—which is why the much weaker Ukraine is so desperate for military aid and goodwill from the Trump administration. It's entirely possible Trump simply forgot or didn't understand that fact. But Trump has openly supported the Russian side in the past, fighting against sanctions on Russian oligarchs and publicly saying that Russia's invasion of Crimea was acceptable because some of the people living there were ethnic Russians. He's also lobbied hard to let Russia rejoin the G7 summit, after it was expelled for its annexation of Crimea.

Bizarrely, the notes that Trump released today describing their fateful phone call also involve him defending Russia to Zelensky, even as Zelensky is trying to make Trump understand the actual situation between the two countries.

TRUMP: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike ... I guess you have one of your wealthy people. ... The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you're surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.

Trump is referring, apparently in all seriousness, to a fringe conspiracy theory that holds that Russia was framed for the cyberattack on the DNC. (It's still not clear what Ukraine has to do with this, though—that part Trump seems to have imagined himself.)

In other words, he's asking the President of Ukraine to investigate non-existent Ukrainian owners of the American computer security firm Crowdstrike to vindicate Ukraine's enemy Russia, which actually conducted the attack.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who can't keep straight which country is a military ally and which is hostile to the United States is unfit for office.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

An earlier version of today's post mistakenly referred to a tweet that Trump sent yesterday, on September 23, as having been sent today. That post is below, and is otherwise accurate, but since What Trump Did Today strives to live up to its name and provide you with information about something Trump did today, a replacement post follows.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to plea-bargain impeachment.

Over the weekend, Trump admitted that he had pressured the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2020 election by launching a public investigation into Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential contender. Today, that growing scandal erupted into a full-blown impeachment inquiry.

As it became clear that House Democrats were moving quickly towards an irrevocable step towards impeaching Trump, he called Speaker Pelosi and asked if he could strike a deal. MSNBC's Heidi Przybyla reported that conversation to host Ari Melber this way:

PRZYBYLA: [Pelosi] also outlined a phone call today that she had with the president that was very interesting... I got a readout on that, that the president actually said to Nancy Pelosi, "Hey, um, can we do something about this whistleblower complaint? Can we work something out?"...
MELBER: On that, let me get you, for our viewers, a little more context on that, you're reporting that the Speaker and the president spoke today, he's had a busy day at the U.N., but you're saying that the pressure led to this call? 
PRZYBYLA: Don't know what specifically set up the call, but we do know that there was a call between the two, and that in the call Donald Trump used language that we've heard him use before, in terms of asking the Speaker what we can do about this whistleblower complaint, how we can possibly work something out.

Pelosi rejected Trump's offer and, later in the day, announced her support for an impeachment inquiry.

In other words, Trump was asking for leniency in a process that could lead to his impeachment and even his removal from office, and which now looks likely to confirm what he has already admitted about his attempts to get the Ukrainian government gin up an investigation into the family of a potential Democratic challenger about a matter where Ukrainian prosecutors had already concluded that no crime had been committed. (Ukraine's chief prosecutor said in May, “I do not want Ukraine to again be the subject of U.S. presidential elections. Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws — at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing.")

So what?

  • People who have done nothing wrong, and who have access to evidence that will clear them, generally don't try to cut a deal.

* * * * * * * *

What did Donald Trump do today yesterday?

He tried and more or less failed to bully a teenage girl.

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager and climate activist, made headlines over the last few days for her passionate appeal for action on the climate crisis. She gave a fiery speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. Her anger over world leaders' inaction in the face of increasingly dire consequences went viral, as did her reaction to Trump himself crossing her path at the U.N.:

Trump responded by mocking Thunberg on Twitter. With unmistakable sarcasm, Trump called her a a "very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future."

Trump, who now desperately needs something to energize his supporters, may have been trying to chase some of the fringier elements of his political base by trolling Thunberg. A Fox News guest called her "mentally ill" yesterday, prompting a shouting match on set and a rare apology from Fox News, which called the comment "disgraceful."

But Thunberg appears to have gotten the better of Trump, changing her Twitter bio today to match his comment.

Ironically, Thunberg and Trump are not all that far apart on the issue of climate change, in practice. While Trump (sometimes) claims to think that it's not a problem, or a "hoax," he's lobbied the Irish government to let him build a sea wall to protect one of his luxury golf courses from rising sea levels caused by climate change.

How is this a problem?

  • A president who can't tolerate even implied criticism from a teenage girl without lashing out is too mentally unstable to hold office.
  • Even by Trump's standards, this is pretty awful behavior.

Monday, September 23, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was surprised to learn how trade negotiations with China are going.

Trump has been visibly distracted in the past week by the ever-worsening whistleblower scandal (and by golf). This may explain why he was unaware of what his own staff was doing in the latest round of trade negotiations with China.

Appearing at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, Trump was asked why a Chinese trade delegation had canceled a planned trip to tour American farms. This was a significant event: American financial markets, which have been watching the trade war for any sign it might be resolved, dropped sharply on Friday. 

Trump was visibly surprised to learn from his Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, that (at least in Mnuchin's telling) cancelling the visit had been the Trump administration's doing.

Video of the exchange makes clear Trump's surprise and annoyance. There's no way to know whether he'd been told about this and forgot, or whether his staff acted without telling him.
Q Mr. President, the Chinese delayed a trade delegation visit of farming communities, I believe in Nebraska and another state. Can you comment on that and whether you see that as a good sign, bad sign, neither? 
TRUMP: Well, they’re starting to buy a lot of our ag product. But, Steve, could you maybe — 
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: That was actually at our request they delayed that. So, we didn’t want there to be any confusion. They have started buying agriculture. They’re going to reschedule that at a different time. The timing didn’t work. But that was — that was purely at our request. 
TRUMP: Why was that our request? Just out of curiosity. 
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We didn’t want confusion around the trade issues. 
TRUMP: Yeah, but I want them to buy farm products. 
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: There was no confusion. We want them to buy agriculture. They’ve committed to buy agriculture. And they’re doing that. 
TRUMP: They’ve committed to buy a lot of agriculture, and they’re going to start, and they’ve started. And we should get them over there as soon as possible so they can start buying.
In reality, China has not started buying American agricultural products, although Trump has been promising farmers that normal trade was about to resume almost since China began retaliating in the trade war he started more than a year and a half ago.

China is—or rather was—a major export market for American farmers. As a result of the Chinese retaliation against Trump's tariffs, farm bankruptcies have spiked. According to the Trump administration's own statistics, the trade war cost American farmers $12 billion in exports in 2018 alone from their high point in 2016—and China's retaliation only came in the second half of that year. Year-on-year agricultural exports to China were down 44% between early 2018 (before Trump's trade war) and early 2019.

The most likely explanation for the cancellation is that Mnuchin and other Trump administration officials who actually know what is happening with the trade war did not want to raise public hopes with footage of apparent progress.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents should know about major events in their own supposed "negotiations" with major trade partners.
  • A president who can't focus on a major economic crisis (especially one of his own making) because he's dealing with scandals should resign.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reminded Indian-American voters that he'd never treat them the way he treats the undocumented workers at his golf courses.

Trump appeared today at an event celebrating the Indian diaspora with its guest of honor, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Trump was in campaign mode, trying to appeal to an audience that included many American citizens of Indian descent—one of the few relatively large racial minorities in the country that he hasn't directly insulted while in office. 

His speech included most of the usual false and debunked talking points that Trump gives at rallies. Trump made a special point of contrasting Indian-Americans with "illegals" who he said were "pouring into our country" for free health care.

In reality, most undocumented workers who are illegally hired in the United States pay taxes and into Social Security and already cannot receive most public benefits. For example, this would include the dozens of undocumented workers hired by just one of Trump's luxury golf resorts. Trump businesses have only just now started using the government E-Verify system, after the sheer size of their illegally hired workforce started coming to light. Not using the E-Verify makes it easier to hire workers with fake credentials—and hiring workers that a company knows are undocumented makes it easier to steal wages from them, as Trump's businesses have.

It's hard to say if any Indian-American voters in the crowd were impressed by his bashing of other immigrant populations, but Trump had almost nothing to lose with them: he only won about 16% of their votes in 2016.

Why should I care about this?

  • Praising one racial minority doesn't make it okay to attack another.
  • If undocumented workers are such a problem, Trump could always make sure his businesses stop hiring them.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He did what he always does when he gets in trouble.

To all appearances, Trump did nothing today but golf and tweet. The day's 20 tweets and retweets—an increasingly typical day's "work" for Trump—give some sense of Trump's anxiety, and perhaps his evolving strategy, over the metastasizing whistleblower scandal. 

Trump's emerging theme with Biden seems to be to insist that it was somehow Biden, and not Trump himself, who attempted to extort the government of Ukraine for his own political gain. Trying to smear opponents with things that he himself is known or suspected to have done has been his default political strategy. Among many other example's, he's said that Hillary Clinton was a misogynist and a bigot who sought Russia's help to influence the election, ran a crooked charity, was too close to the Saudis, and was mentally unstable and too infirm to be president. He's also said that President Obama's academic degrees were fake, that he illegally profited from the presidency, and that he played too much golf.

Trump repeatedly insisted that he was the innocent victim of a smear campaign undertaken by a secret conspiracy of the Democratic party, the entire news media, and his own government.

What is so bad about this?

  • Trying to deflect attention from your own acts doesn't change them.
  • Past a certain point, psychological projection becomes a sign of mental illness.
  • The same thing is true of thinking that everyone is conspiring against you.

Friday, September 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said it didn't matter if he tried to get a foreign country to intervene in the 2020 election.

Inevitably, Trump was asked today about yesterday's revelations about his apparent attempt to pressure the government of Ukraine to start an "investigation" of his political rival, former vice-president Joe Biden.
Q    Mr. President, on that point, did you discuss Joe Biden, his son, or his family with the leader of Ukraine? 
TRUMP:  It doesn’t matter what I discuss. 
Of course, it does matter if Trump is attempting to use the powers of his office to force a foreign government to interfere in yet another American election. It's illegal to corruptly influence a foreign government, to accept (or offer) a bribe, and to use federal office for personal gain.

The Putin regime in Russia broke American laws in a successful attempt to influence the election on Trump's behalf, with the Trump campaign's knowledge. In June, Trump openly invited foreign countries to do it again, saying that it wasn't necessary to alert the FBI just because a foreign government offered to illegally intervene on his behalf. 

In other words, Trump—who yesterday claimed in court that it was illegal to even investigate a sitting president for any crime at any level of government—is now saying that it "doesn't matter" if he commits crimes in order to ensure his re-election.

Further reporting today from the Wall Street Journal suggested that in his phone call with the Ukrainian president, Trump brought up the subject of the "investigation" eight times. At the time, Trump was withholding $250,000,000 in military aid that Congress had appropriated to help Ukraine fight the illegal Russian occupation of Crimea.

Why is this a problem?

  • Americans should be free to have open and fair elections without foreign influence.
  • No matter how hard he might try to be, the president is not above the law.
  • A president who can't put the country's best interests ahead of his own is unfit for office.
  • If this isn't abuse of power, nothing is.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried really, really hard to keep a whistleblower from telling Congress about something he did that his own appointee called a "credible and urgent" matter.

Over the last few days, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community has been attempting to inform the House Intelligence Committee about a whistleblower report that he deemed "credible and urgent." Reporting on the matter has suggested that the "urgent" concern has to do with a conversation Trump had with a foreign leader—possibly the president of Ukraine—and a "disturbing" promise that Trump extended.

As his lawyer Rudy Giuliani spectacularly demonstrated on CNN tonight, Trump has been pressuring the Ukrainian government to launch two "investigations." One was to be aimed at rehabilitating the image of his now-incarcerated campaign manager Paul Manafort, and one was intended to discredit Hunter Biden, son of Democratic candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden. Recently, and without explanation, Trump ended months of foot-dragging over a $250 million military aid package for Ukraine.

Although it is required by law, Trump's Director of National Intelligence has refused to allow the Inspector General to report to Congress about the matter.

Today, Trump weighed in on the matter via Twitter.

In other words, Trump is saying he knows better than to say inappropriate things when he's aware other people are listening in. That would, at least, explain why Trump has frequently sought out one-on-one meetings, particularly with hostile, authoritarian leaders like Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un where he might want to say "inappropriate" things.

For example, he met privately with Putin at the 2018 G20 summit, where only Putin's translator—and no American staff whatsoever—were present. At a different meeting with Putin, he confiscated his translator's notes and refused to tell his own advisors what the conversation had been about. When he met with Kim at their first summit, he demanded a block of time alone with Kim, with no American advisors accompanying him, something that horrified national security experts. (The immediate effect of that was that China found out before the United States military about Trump's agreement to unilaterally cancel joint military exercises with South Korea.)

In fact, even during the post-election transition phase, Trump was trying to establish secret backchannels to hostile foreign governments that American intelligence agencies couldn't intercept. His son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, asked Russian officials to let him use Russian communications lines—which are hardened against eavesdropping by American intelligence—so that Trump's team and Putin's could talk directly. Trump also enlisted Erik Prince, the CEO of the mercenary firm known as Blackwater, to set up a secret backchannel with the Putin regime during the transition.

That said, Trump frequently gets confused about what he is and isn't supposed to say out loud. Just yesterday, at his border fence photo op, he began speaking about sensitive details of the surveillance network built into the fence, and had to be gently pushed off the topic by a military official. Whether accidentally or on purpose, he's revealed classified information a number of times. Earlier this month, he tweeted a cell phone picture of a classified briefing on Iran that revealed technical details about U.S. surveillance capacities. He burned an Israeli intelligence asset by speaking carelessly about information shared by Israel to visiting Russian officials, and then made things worse by publicly confirming that Israel was indeed the source. He's revealed the location of American submarines—the whole purpose of which is to have their locations unknown. He let top-secret information about a terrorist attack in Britain leak while the hunt for the attacker was still underway, infuriating British officials.

Arguably, though, Trump has done more espionage damage to the United States by the things he's done intentionally. In an attempt to interfere with the Russia investigation, he ordered the partial declassification of a FISA warrant that revealed U.S. intelligence sources and methods. He tried to circumvent the usual vetting procedures to get his daughter and son-in-law security clearances they couldn't otherwise get because of lies they'd told while applying. And he kept Michael Flynn, now a convicted felon, as his intelligence chief in spite of knowing about Flynn's undisclosed ties to foreign governments including Russia.

The Inspector General who found the whistleblower's complaint "credible and urgent" is a Trump appointee. This may be significant, given the importance Trump has placed on surrounding himself with law enforcement officials who are willing to give him their personal loyalty—like Attorney General William Barr, whose Justice Department is reportedly leading efforts to protect Trump from Congress learning what the whistleblower has to say.

Trump's comments came on the same day that he filed a lawsuit against New York prosecutors, arguing that it is illegal to even investigate a sitting president, even for matters that have nothing to do with his conduct in office.


  • It's wrong for a president to use the power of his office to pressure other countries into doing his political dirty work.
  • Administrations that haven't done anything wrong don't try to silence whistleblowers.
  • The president is not above the law.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged that not only were American taxpayers paying for his replacement border fence, but he'd tricked Congress to make it happen.

Trump visited a section of existing border fence today for a photo opportunity, where he continued to try to lower expectations for his long-abandoned campaign promise to build a 1000-mile wall that Mexico would pay for. Instead, he talked about a roughly 450-mile fence, only 110 miles of which will cover areas not currently fenced.

He also boasted about how he had used legal trickery to take American taxpayer money that Congress had appropriated for renovations to existing walls:

Q: Mr. President, all told, where — how much is this border wall costing the United States, and where is that money coming from? 
TRUMP: ...I'll give you an example, you know they tried to stymie us, by saying $1.6 billion, but only for renovations. Well, if they have a little eight foot wall, seven foot wall, or ten foot wall, that's like, you know, they just pull down the paddle [sic] and they walk across. And if we rip that down, I guess you could say that's renovation. So, you know, we've, uh, used some of this water [sic], some of this comes right out of the budget. Much of the wall comes out of the budget. But if we have even a small piece of steel going around that's called a renovation because we take the piece of steel out, we put up a thirty-foot wall, and, uh, so, in many ways, that, uh, works very much to our advantage.

In reality, the replacement fence near San Diego that Trump stood in front of is 18 feet high. In spite of Trump's shrinking promises for border fence construction, the total fenced area of the U.S.-Mexico border today is essentially exactly what it had been under President Obama

Trump long ago stopped even mentioning the possibility that Mexico would in any way foot the bill for the fence, a promise he made countless times during the 2016 campaign. 

Instead, he's shifted to a strategy of denying he ever said such a thing.


Why does this matter?

  • Voters who believed Trump's campaign promises once may be less likely to believe them a second time.
  • Past a certain point, lying becomes pathological.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went to a secret fundraiser.

Trump flew to a fundraising luncheon in California today, at which he was expected to pocket $15 million for his 2020 campaign. (For all his supposed wealth, Trump gives almost no money to his own campaign. In fact, he makes money from it, charging it top dollar for floor space that otherwise struggles to find renters in Trump tower.) 

Fundraising is a fairly normal activity for any politician, but what was unusual about Trump's trip today is that its location was kept secret, even from the gift-giving attendees, until the last minute. (It was eventually revealed to be the mansion of Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy.) 

This was an apparent attempt to save Trump the embarrassment of seeing protestors. If so, it didn't work: word leaked out in time for crowds to assemble as close to McNealy's compound as security allowed.

More importantly for attendees, the secret location helped save Trump's donors the embarrassment of being associated with him. While Trump himself is finding ways to make money for himself and his campaign, whether by steering Air Force NCOs to spend weeks' worth of government per diems at his luxury resorts, or selling overpriced straws as campaign merch, CEOs are finding that Trump and his perpetually low popularity is brand poison. 

For example, last month, the Soulcycle chain of fitness studios saw a customer revolt after one of its investors held a different fundraiser for Trump. And two weeks ago, when actress Debra Messing called for attendees at a different southern California Trump fundraiser to be named, Trump himself went nuclear, in part because Messing pointed out that other candidates' supporters aren't usually ashamed to be known as such.

Trump spoke at the event, but reporters were barred, and recording devices like cell phones were confiscated at the door, so there's no way to know what he said.

So what?

  • Candidates with nothing to hide don't generally try to physically hide their fundraising speeches.

Monday, September 16, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He whipsawed between taking orders from Saudi Arabia and Russia on the oil field attack.

Yesterday, Saudi oil facilities were set ablaze by an apparent drone attack. As much as 5% of the world's oil production capacity was affected, and oil prices spiked immediately.

The obvious suspects were either Iran or the Iranian-backed Houthi movement in Yemen's civil war. Saudi Arabia is essentially fighting against the Houthis in that war, thanks to de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump has bent over backwards to defend bin Salman in the past. Iran denied responsibility, and the Houthis claimed it, but the opposite may be true.

Trump gave up any diplomatic influence over Iran when he unilaterally withdrew the United States from an international agreement to control Iran's nuclear program, although recently he'd been trying to entice Iran back into a deal that would allow him to save face before the 2020 elections. 

But Trump responded to the attack by tweeting that the United States would intervene when the Saudi government told him what to do.

Asked about this today, Trump explained that he had to intervene on the Saudis' terms because they'd bought the privilege.

But we would certainly help them.  They’ve been a great ally.  They spend $400 billion in our country over the last number of years.  Four hundred billion dollars.  That’s a million and a half jobs.  And they’re not ones that, unlike some countries, where they want terms; they want terms and conditions.  They want to say, “Can we borrow the money at zero percent for the next 400 years?”  No.  No.  Saudi Arabia pays cash.

This isn't the first time that Trump has rationalized doing the Saudis' bidding over money. Faced with the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump repeatedly denied his own government's finding that it had been ordered by the Crown Prince, and then insisted that he was powerless to act because the Saudis had promised to buy weapons from American companies.

Trump, as a private citizen, is deeply financially entangled with the Saudi royal family—as is his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who Trump appointed to oversee a Middle East peace plan.

However, the Trump White House did sound one note of caution about the possibility of engaging Iran in a military conflict this morning—but only after Russia, which is aligned with Iran, pointedly warned Trump to "avoid any hasty steps or conclusions."

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The United States should choose its military engagements based on its own best interests, not whichever foreign power has the most influence over its president.
  • American foreign policy should not be for sale at any price.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He once again declared that women who report sexual assault are lying.

Yesterday, the New York Times released an excerpt of a forthcoming book on Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The authors corroborated the claim raised by his former Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez that he pulled down his pants at a party and pushed it towards her face, forcing her to swat it away. The excerpt also reports on a separate party where witnesses say Kavanaugh pushed his penis into a woman's hand.

Ramirez's accusations did not get the same attention as those made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, whom Kavanaugh reportedly assaulted while drunk at a high school party, and who testified against him directly at his confirmation hearing. Trump stonewalled allowing an FBI investigation until it became clear that Kavanaugh's nomination was in jeopardy, and then only allowed one that lasted a few days and had to carefully observe certain limits

The NYT report makes clear that the FBI was either unable, or—given Trump's absolute insistence that Kavanaugh must be found innocent—unwilling to pursue most of the leads they had about Kavanaugh's alleged crimes against women.

Today, Trump waded back into the debate, calling all of Kavanaugh's accusers liars and saying that Kavanaugh should sue them for "liable." (He later corrected it to "libel.")

While Trump is sometimes confused about what a libel suit would involve, he's correct that Kavanaugh could sue anyone making such an accusation. But any such trial would make Kavanaugh subject to an actual investigation, and force him to testify. This is why Trump has never made good on his own threats to sue the many women who have accused him of sexual violations ranging from harassment to rape.

In spite of some calls for his impeachment, Kavanaugh's Supreme Court seat is not likely in jeopardy, given that removing him would require 67 votes in the Senate. But it's no mystery why Trump is anxious to defend him: he has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by at least 24 girls and women. In spite of having admitted on tape to some of the same acts he's accused of here—for example, sexually grabbing women or using his status as a hotel owner to peep on pageant contestants while they undressed—Trump insists that every single one of them is lying.

Kavanaugh is hardly the only friend or supporter that Trump has defended against allegations of rape or harassment. He's also branded as liars the women who have accused former Fox pundit Bill O'Reilly, accused pedophile and Trump-endorsed Senate candidate Roy Moore, Mike Tyson (with whom Trump had a business relationship), Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and White House aide Rob Porter.
In fact, there are only two times that Trump has shown any willingness to believe that a woman has been sexually mistreated. The first was during his publicity-seeking vendetta against the so-called Central Park Five, a group of black and Hispanic teenagers wrongfully charged with the rape of a jogger. The victim in that case was unconscious and did not accuse them directly. (To this day, Trump continues to maintain, in the face of DNA evidence, that they must be guilty and should be executed.) The other time was immediately before a debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he invited as his guests three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.

Why should I care about this?

  • People's actions are what determine whether they're innocent of an accusation, not how Donald Trump feels about them.
  • Finding out the truth about criminal acts committed by people in high office is more important than Donald Trump's political needs.
  • People in power assuming that all women are lying about sexual crimes is why women don't report sexual crimes.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He had some morning mood swings.

Trump began the day by tweeting out thanks to someone or something invisible to the rest of his audience.

Trump himself is the original source of the quote, for which he was widely mocked at the time. It's not clear if a Twitter follower (presumably sarcastically) called him that, or whether he remembered that he was the one who coined the phrase.

But just twenty minutes later, Trump's mood had soured. He lashed out at MSNBC's Joy Reid, whose Saturday morning show had yet to begin:

The tweet itself makes clear that Trump knows perfectly well who Reid is, and who besides him watches her, which isn't surprising: Trump's habit of hate-watching his own negative TV coverage is well known. It's also a known Trump tic to throw highly specific tantrums about television programs he supposedly hasn't watched. In fact, his television habits are so voracious and so predictable that he's been targeted personally by lobbyists and critics who have taken out advertisements on shows they know he'll be watching.

Trump is an early riser and uses a DVR to catch up on TV he missed from the night before, so he may only just now have been seeing Reid as the guest host on Friday evening's All In with Chris Hayes. On that show, Reid noted Trump's apparent difficulty remembering and pronouncing the name of his vice-president (which he rendered "Mike Pounds"). She also made fun of Trump's "smoking-hot beauty tips" to Republican fund-raisers, in which he riffed on how energy-efficient LED light bulbs are the reason for his orange-looking skin.

In reality, as his personal makeup artist at the Republican National Convention has said, Trump looks orange because he usually does his own makeup and overapplies bronzer.

Why does this matter?

  • It shouldn't be this easy to emotionally manipulate the President of the United States.

Friday, September 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed to have helped the military, but got called out by his own Air Force.

In what looks like an attempt to mount a pre-emptive defense against impeachment, Trump tweeted out a number of reasons why he shouldn't be impeached. (His central argument was that a president can't be impeached as long as he's doing a "good (great!) job.") None Trump's claims had to do with his actual innocence of the various potential charges, and most of them were false anyway.

One particular claim—that he had "rebuilt [the] military"—was fact-checked by the United States Air Force. In a report that came into public view today, an Air Force review panel concluded that Trump's raiding of the Defense Department budget to build or replace border fencing is creating risks to national security.

Trump has effectively cancelled 127 military projects in order to finally make some progress on the wall he campaigned on (although obviously not the part about Mexico paying for it). Some of them, like construction or renovation of nine base schools, will only affect the quality of life for the families of servicemembers. Others, like replacing the malfunctioning boiler needed to keep an Alaska airbase habitable in winter, will directly affect military performance. And some, like shoring up security at a military base in Turkey, directly threaten servicemembers' safety.

The Air Force is not the only branch to object to Trump's attempts to make his political problem a military problem. In March, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, warned that deploying Marines to the U.S.-Mexico border would pose an "unacceptable risk to Marine Corps combat readiness and solvency."

So what?

  • The lives and safety of American military forces are more important than Donald Trump's political problems.
  • Congress, not the president, decides whether or not the president should be impeached.