Thursday, October 31, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said a document he's keeping secret would prove his innocence.

Over and over again today, including in an interview with the conservative Washington Examiner, Trump insisted that the "transcript" of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky would prove his innocence. In that interview, Trump said he would print T-shirts saying "read the transcript." He also said, "At some point, I’m going to sit down, perhaps as a fireside chat on live television, and I will read the transcript of the call, because people have to hear it."

There may be a transcript, but Trump has not released any such thing. Instead, he's released a memo summarizing parts of it, which says on its first page that it is "not a verbatim transcript."

White House staff, including a serving Army officer and Ukraine expert who listened to the call, have testified that the memo was edited to soften the criminal implications of Trump's demand that Ukraine interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf.

When those staff started raising the alarm about what Trump had done, other White House staff responded by moving the memo—normally unclassified—onto a top-secret server to prevent other administration officials and potential whistleblowers from finding out what Trump had done.

That said, even the partial summary contained in the memo is incredibly damning for Trump. Support for his impeachment skyrocketed immediately after he released it, and now outpolls not impeaching him in all recent polls.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who had evidence that cleared him of impeachable offenses would have released it by now.
  • It's wrong to lie about things that people can see for themselves with their own eyes, although it could be worse.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about an economy that was, by his standards, "in deep trouble."

Trump got two more troubling pieces of financial news today. The economic growth rate of the United cooled to 1.9%. In response, the Federal Reserve Board cut interest rates by another quarter percent, a move it uses to try to stave off or weaken an impending recession.

Trump hailed the numbers as evidence of 

When the economy grew by the exact same amount—1.9%—under President Obama, although in a strengthening direction rather than a weakening one, Trump said this:

Trump campaigned on promises to grow the economy by 6%. In reality, the U.S. economy has moved in a fairly stable and much smaller range for the last 40 years. It's not clear whether Trump ever thought he could somehow actually do this, or whether he simply thought he could actually convince other people he could.

It's not the first time that Trump's perspective has magically changed like this. During the 2016 campaign, as the unemployment rate continued to fall during the Obama recovery, Trump repeatedly insisted that the "real" rate was not 4% or 5% but 42%—or about twice the unemployment rate during the worst of the Great Depression. He immediately changed his mind when he inherited those numbers himself, calling them "GREAT AGAIN."

Why does this matter?

  • Whether a given level of growth is good or bad doesn't depend on who is president.
  • The economy of the United States is more important than Donald Trump's political needs.
  • Past a certain point, being unable to see any fault in yourself is a sign of mental illness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said a serving U.S. Army officer was "human scum."

This morning, Trump made two contradictory claims about Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

First, he tweeted "he'd never even heard" of Vindman, who works for the National Security Council as a Ukraine expert.

This is almost certainly true. Even presidents who pay attention to their security briefings might not know every staffer on the NSC.

Then, Trump tweeted that Vindman—who he's "never even heard of"—is a "never Trumper."

Trump, who is paranoid under the best of circumstances, has been especially agitated about "never Trumpers" recently. He seems to be defining them as anyone, of any party, who isn't actively protecting him. He raged last week that they were "human scum." 

Vindman is a decorated, active-duty Army officer who was wounded by an IED in the Iraq War. He speaks Ukrainian and has been in a Congressional deposition all day about Trump's efforts to extort political interference in the 2020 election from the Ukrainian government. He was brought to the NSC by the Trump administration. 

Trump, who equated Lt. Col. Vindman with "human scum," is commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces.

Note that in both tweets, Trump incorrectly refers to a "transcript," but the partial memo he released of the call explicitly notes that it is not a transcript. But what it does reveal is exactly what Vindman and the intelligence community whistleblower claimed—that Trump pressured the Ukrainian president for an investigation into his political rival.

UPDATE: In fact, Vindman testified today that he tried unsuccessfully to make that memo more accurately reflect the actual content of the call, only to be overruled. The fact that the most incriminating details were kept out may explain Trump's surprising willingness to release the memo. Trump has still refused to release any verbatim transcript or recording.

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told House impeachment investigators on Tuesday that the White House transcript of a July call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president omitted crucial words and phrases, and that his attempts to include them failed, according to three people familiar with the testimony.
The omissions, Colonel Vindman said, included Mr. Trump’s assertion that there were recordings of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. discussing Ukraine corruption, and an explicit mention by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of Burisma Holdings, the energy company whose board employed Mr. Biden’s son Hunter.

So what?

  • It's not a personal attack on the president for a military officer to do his duty to defend the interests of the United States.
  • A president who insults the people who serve the United States in the military just to score political points doesn't deserve to be commander-in-chief.

Monday, October 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found out that the "deep state" involves decorated military officers.

This morning, Trump gave his latest version of an explanation of the July phone call with the Ukrainian president that has now all but guaranteed that he will be impeached for abuse of power:

We had a very good conversation with the Ukrainian President. The conversation was perfect. They don’t ever talk about the conversation. It started with the whistleblower, and now they don’t want the whistleblower. Then they had a second whistleblower; now they don’t want the second whistleblower. The reason is that when the whistleblower -- when they saw what the whistleblower wrote, and then when I released the conversation, which bore no relationship to what the whistleblower saw, they said their case was out the window. And I think it's a disgrace.

Of course, in the real world, it was Trump's uncharacteristic transparency in releasing the partial summary of the phone call—effectively admitting that everything the first whistleblower said was true and accurate—that has him facing impeachment now. (He ignored staff who told him that this would happen.)

But Trump seems convinced that it's a political winner to attack the still-anonymous sources risking their careers and safety to bring his activities to light. This may be because he actually thinks that most Americans hate the U.S. intelligence community, which exposed Russia's attempts to rig the election on his behalf, as much as he does.

Tonight, the New York Times is reporting on the forthcoming testimony of an Army officer, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council and a decorated Iraq War veteran. Vindman twice told his superiors in the White House that Trump's extortion of Ukraine was damaging American interests. He says in his prepared opening statement:

I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine. I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security. 

As Vindman himself notes in that statement, because of how seriously U.S. military officers take the civilian chain of command, it is extremely unusual for serving U.S. military officers to offer anything even remotely resembling criticism of a sitting president.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents shouldn't do things that the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, and the military all agree are wrong and bad for American national security.
  • Repeating a lie does not make it true.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took a victory lap for a military mission he did everything possible to jeopardize.

American forces carried out a raid last night that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the notional leader of the Islamic State. This morning, Trump gave a long speech in which he credited himself, and then Russia and Turkey, for the success of the raid. When asked about the role played by Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, the United States' former allies in the fight against ISIS, Trump would only grudgingly say that they gave "certain support."

But as the day wore on, and military and Trump administration sources began reaching out to reporters, a very different story emerged. In reality, Russia and Turkey's role appears to have been to stay out of the American military's way, while Kurdish intelligence provided the United States with al-Baghdadi's whereabouts and details about his personal security. (He was found and killed in northwest Syria, which Turkey—apparently completely unaware of his presence—has controlled since 2018) 

Trump's sudden and still unexplained decision to allow Turkey to invade the region nearly torpedoed the mission altogether, as the New York Times reported this evening:

For months, intelligence officials had kept Mr. Trump apprised of what he had set as a top priority, the hunt for Mr. al-Baghdadi, the world’s most wanted terrorist.
But Mr. Trump’s abrupt withdrawal order three weeks ago disrupted the meticulous planning underway and forced Pentagon officials to speed up the plan for the risky night raid before their ability to control troops, spies and reconnaissance aircraft disappeared with the pullout, the officials said. 
Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death in the raid on Saturday, they said, occurred largely in spite of, and not because of, Mr. Trump’s actions.

What's the problem with this?

  • It's bad if the commander-in-chief unnecessarily endangers the people under his command.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent a subordinate out to read a fawning statement about how he doesn't surround himself with yes men.

Today, Trump's former chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, said Trump's seemingly inevitable impeachment was the inevitable result of his surrounding himself with "yes men." Speaking at a conference in Georgia, Kelly said:

I said, whatever you do — and we were still in the process of trying to find someone to take my place — I said whatever you do, don’t hire a ‘yes man,’ someone who won’t tell you the truth — don’t do that. Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached. That was almost 11 months ago, and I have an awful lot of, to say the least, second thoughts about leaving. It pains me to see what’s going on because I believe if I was still there or someone like me was there, he would not be kind of, all over the place.

Trump chafed under Kelly's attempts to impose some discipline on his work hours, and for part of Kelly's tenure, the two weren't on speaking terms. But Kelly lingered on in part because Trump, who is notoriously shy about conflict when he has to face it in person, found it intimidating to tell Kelly he was fired.

Trump lashed out almost immediately, insisting that Kelly "never said that, he never said anything like that. If he would have said that I would have thrown him out of the office. He just wants to come back into the action like everybody else does."

The first part of that claim is certainly true: Trump doesn't allow criticism, or even anything short of fawning praise from the people he sees as his inferiors.

But the idea Kelly—or anyone else—wants to climb back aboard the Trump ship even as Kelly's prediction is coming true is obviously false. Trump's current chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, refused to take the job full-time and is in an acting role. Virtually all the senior positions in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security are vacant or filled on a temporary basis. The unprecedented turnover in senior staff has been a serious problem for Trump, as not only are his handpicked staff leaving on bad terms after having to actually work for him—or staying on only to help corral his worst impulses—but he can't get anyone new to fill what would otherwise be prestigious and powerful jobs.

Later in the day, apparently to prove that he doesn't surround himself with "yes men," Trump sent his press secretary out to say that Kelly, a four-star Marine general, was "unequipped to handle the genius of our great president."

How is this a bad thing?

  • It's a problem if the president is so incompetent that he can't hire qualified people for the most powerful positions in government.
  • Past a certain point, a need for flattery is pathological.
  • A president who can't bear to hear criticism or different viewpoints is incompetent.

Friday, October 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave a speech at a historically black college which almost no black students were allowed to see.

Earlier this week, Trump said the impeachment investigation against was a "lynching." On a political level, this was probably an attempt to distract from the actual news of that day: his own appointee, the acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, testifying that Trump explicitly demanded that Ukraine interfere in the 2020 election in order to receive promised military aide. Even so, the sight of a white billionaire president comparing himself to the thousands of victims of racist mob violence horrified Americans across the political spectrum.

Today, Trump gave a speech today at Benedict College, a historically black college in South Carolina. Only ten students were given a chance to attend. 

The remainder of the student body was told to stay in their dorm rooms, supposedly for security reasons. The rest of the audience, more than 200 people, were donors and supporters invited by the Trump campaign. Trump did not speak with the students or acknowledge the protestors demonstrating outside. 

By contrast, when President Obama visited the school in 2015, he spoke at an auditorium seating 3,500. Most of Obama's time on the stage was spent taking questions from students.

Lynching was a form of state-tolerated terrorism carried out in the form of mob violence and executions of people who threatened the racial order in the Jim Crow era. It was often carried out against African-Americans falsely accused of sexual violence against white women. Trump is facing investigation by a co-equal branch of government as provided for in the Constitution.

How is this a bad thing?

  • The most powerful person on the planet doesn't get to play the victim.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He suggested that Syrian Kurds ethnically cleanse themselves.

Trump today tweeted that the United States' Kurdish former allies against the Assad regime and ISIS should leave the parts of Syria they have lived in for centuries and "start heading towards the Oil Region."

By definition, this would be ethnic cleansing.

Since the White House didn't—and presumably couldn't—explain exactly what this meant, it's a little unclear what Trump thought he was saying. But the "Oil Region" of Syria is hundreds of miles away from the areas that Kurds are being forced to flee by advancing Turkish forces and Turkey-allied militias. 

There is no reason to think that literally millions of Kurdish refugees would be welcome in the Arab-dominated oil-producing regions of Syria, or that the region could support such a huge population influx, or that the several hundred American troops Trump plans to leave in the region could do anything to protect them.

Trump, who can hardly afford yet another foreign policy debacle, seems desperate to claim some kind of victory after inexplicably giving Turkey the go-ahead to invade northern Syria and launch attacks on the Kurdish population in the region. 

In the same tweet, Trump said he "really enjoyed" speaking with Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the Kurdish troops in the region, and that Abdi—again, according to Trump—"appreciates what we have done." In reality, Abdi has expressed horror at what the Kurds (and much of the rest of the world, and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress) see as a betrayal.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed, in court, as clearly as he possibly could, that he is above all laws.

During the campaign, Trump famously declared that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York. This was a claim about how popular he imagined himself to be, not a legal argument.

Since taking office, Trump has leaned heavily on the assumption that a president can't be criminally prosecuted while in office—not something that has been tested in court, but a longstanding DOJ directive. (Trump has been implicated in any number of crimes, including as an unindicted co-conspirator in the crimes for which his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is now in prison.)

Today, his lawyer argued in a federal court that, as president, Trump is not only immune from prosecution for any crime—including specifically murdering someone in cold blood—but that he cannot even be investigated for any crime while in office. In fact, attorney William Consovoy argued, even third parties—in this case, the accounting firm that did Trump's taxes—cannot be approached for evidence related to any presidential crime whatsoever, no matter how serious.

Why should I care?

  • Only someone who wants to be a dictator would try to claim the powers of a dictator.
  • No matter how badly Trump may need for it to be true, the president is not above the law.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He attacked the "unelected bureaucrat" he appointed.

The current acting ambassador to Ukraine is Bill Taylor. Taylor was first appointed ambassador to Ukraine in 2006 by then-President George W. Bush, and returned to the role this summer after Trump fired Marie Yovanovitch under suspicious circumstances

Today, Taylor gave shocking testimony directly linking Trump to the decision to withhold legally appropriated military aid to Ukraine until its president "publicly" committed to investigating Trump's political rival, former vice-president Joe Biden. As Taylor put it in his opening statement:

[Trump political appointee] Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelenskyy was dependent on a public announcement of investigations. In fact, Ambassador Sondland said, "everything" was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskyy" in a public box” by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.
...Before these text messages, during our call on September 8, Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman. When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check. Ambassador Volker used the same terms several days later while we were together at the Yalta European Strategy Conference. I argued to both that the explanation made no sense: the Ukrainians did not "owe" President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was "crazy," as I had said in my text message to Ambassadors Sondland and Volker on September 9.

Taylor's revelations only confirm what Trump has all but admitted in other ways. But they are yet another complete refutation, from someone who witnessed events on the ground, of Trump's increasingly vocal insistence that there was "no quid pro quo."

In response, Trump dispatched Stephanie Grisham, the seldom-seen White House Press Secretary, to issue a statement calling Taylor a "radical unelected bureaucrat."

Taylor, who has served the United States in military and diplomatic roles for 50 years, was appointed to his "unelected bureaucrat" role as acting ambassador by Trump himself.

Why does this matter?

  • Calling people names doesn't make what they witnessed go away.
  • Trump hasn't actually denied anything Taylor said.

Monday, October 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to imagine away the Constitution.

In a Cabinet meeting today, Trump gave a rambling speech that was emotional and untruthful even by his standards. In the process, he gave some insight into his views on the Constitution. In the middle of a lengthy tear about not being allowed to award himself a lavish no-bid contract to host the G7 summit, Trump said this:
George Washington, they say, had two desks: He had a presidential desk and a business desk.  I don’t think you people, with this phony emoluments clause 
And, by the way, I would say that it’s cost me anywhere from $2 [billion] to $5 billion to be President — and that’s okay — between what I lose and what I could have made.  I would have made a fortune if I just ran my business.  I was doing it really well.  I have a great business.
In the real world, there are two emoluments clauses in the Constitution: a domestic clause that prevents Trump (or any public official) from using his office for personal profit, and foreign clause that prevents Trump from taking anything of value (like hotel fees) from foreign countries without permission from Congress.

Trump's claim about his supposed losses in the presidency is ridiculous, not least because there's no clear evidence that Trump had anything like that kind of money to lose. Trump's net worth is probably positive, and possibly quite high, but he has gone to such lengths to conceal or lie about the details about where his money comes from that there's no way of knowing for sure. (It is known that he owes hundreds of millions of dollars to various foreign banks.)

What tax documents have slipped through Trump's wall of secrecy have either showed him conspiring with his family to cheat on the taxes on the hundreds of millions of dollars his father gave him, or giving different numbers to tax officials than he gave to loan officers, or writing off $916 million dollars in other people's investment losses on properties that he ran into the ground.

There's not much to say for Trump's claim that he was "doing it really well" as a businessman, which he repeated over and over again during the meeting. He's declared bankruptcy six times, and even with a generous estimate of his wealth, has not earned more he would have simply by investing his lavish inheritance.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Presidents don't get to ignore the parts of the Constitution they don't like.
  • The Constitution tells presidents what they can do, not the other way around.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent Mick Mulvaney out to do damage control, with poor results.

Trump's acting chief of staff and OMB Director, Mick Mulvaney, has been in the spotlight since Thursday, when he inadvertently admitted that Trump conditioned military aid for Ukraine on that country performing a fake "investigation" of his presidential rival Joe Biden. Mulvaney walked back the comments later in the day, but the damage was done.

In fairness to Mulvaney, when he admitted that Trump made his political demands part of his willingness to release legally mandated military aid for Ukraine, he was only confirming what Trump himself had already admitted with the release of the White House memo of his call with the Ukrainian president. Still, with at least three major scandals breaking this weekend—his greenlighting the ethnic cleansing of a former ally in Syria, his demand for Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election, and his awarding of the G7 summit hosting duties to himself—Trump sent Mulvaney out to do more damage control on the Trump-friendly Fox News Channel. That led to this exchange with host Chris Wallace:

WALLACE: He's decided that he's not going to hold it [the G7 summit] at Doral. He blames it on, quote, the "hostile media and their Democratic partners" but again, he was getting hammered by Republicans, so why did he cave?

MULVANEY: I honestly think what you saw in the tweet was real. The president isn’t one for holding back his feelings and emotions about something. He was honestly surprised at the level of pushback. At the end of the day, he still considers himself to be in the hospitality business.

As a factual matter, Mulvaney is correct: Trump, whose mysterious finances would be greatly improved if Trump National Doral stopped losing money for even a single month, is very much in the hospitality business. Every other president in the modern era has sold off their business interests before taking office in order to focus exclusively on the job of the presidency.

Trump's own (presidential) schedule today was once again blank, and he once again spent it on Twitter.

Why does this matter?

  • The presidency is not a part-time job.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?


With golf ruled out by cool temperatures and the threat of rain, Trump had nothing to do today but tweet. (Virtually without exception, Trump does not do work related to the presidency on the weekends, or on weekdays before about 11:00 a.m., or on Friday afternoons, or during the free-floating "executive time" during the normal workday reserved for Twitter and cable TV.)

He tweeted and retweeted a lot, even by his own standards, shining a light his anxieties ranging from impeachment to Syria to Mick Mulvaney's seemingly accidental confession of the corrupt bargain with Ukraine that Trump himself has already admitted to.

But at 9:18 p.m., Trump actually tweeted something newsworthy: that he was backing down on his decision to award himself the multi-million dollar contract to host the G7 summit in 2020. Opposition to his choosing Trump National Doral, his failing Miami-area golf resort, for a major world summit during hurricane season has been overwhelming and bipartisan

In fact, it was such a blatantly corrupt act, it seemed possible it could become an article of impeachment all by itself, which may have been what scared Trump off. (Republicans have been extremely unhappy at having to defend Trump on this point.) He explained his retreat in three furious tweets:

I thought I was doing something very good for our Country by using Trump National Doral, in Miami, for hosting the G-7 Leaders. It is big, grand, on hundreds of acres, next to MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, has tremendous ballrooms & meeting rooms, and each delegation would have........its own 50 to 70 unit building. Would set up better than other alternatives. I announced that I would be willing to do it at NO PROFIT or, if legally permissible, at ZERO COST to the USA. But, as usual, the Hostile Media & their Democrat Partners went CRAZY!....Therefore, based on both Media & Democrat Crazed and Irrational Hostility, we will no longer consider Trump National Doral, Miami, as the Host Site for the G-7 in 2020. We will begin the search for another site, including the possibility of Camp David, immediately. Thank you!

Trump National Doral, one of the few Trump-branded properties he actually owns, has been hemorrhaging money in recent years, especially in the summer months. By filling it for a month or more with foreign delegations, Trump would be reducing those losses to zero, even assuming that he really did bill them at cost. 

So what?

  • Taking money from the treasury and putting it in your own pocket because you can is what tinpot dictators do.
  • So is shaking down foreign leaders for bribes.
  • Not getting to break the law doesn't make you a victim.
  • There are actually more important things for a president to be doing.
  • A better businessman wouldn't need to the presidency to try to rescue his businesses.

Friday, October 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said the Kurds he abandoned were "happy" with Turkey's "ultimate solution" for them.

In tweets and appearances before reporters today, Trump told a number of lies about the Turkey-Syria debacle.

Throughout the day, Trump referred repeatedly to a "ceasefire" between invading Turkish forces and fleeing Kurdish troops and civilians. But Turkey has agreed to no such thing—the Turkish government specifically contradicted Vice-President Mike Pence's use of the term yesterday—and continued shelling border towns in Syria.

Trump later called the attacks on the civilian population, which resulted in casualties, "minor."  This was in the same tweet where he spoke of Turkey's "ultimate solution" for its Kurdish problem, in a chilling but hopefully accidental echo of Nazi Germany's "final solution" for European Jews. (Turkey's government has long been hostile to its minority Kurdish population, and the U.S. military—which Trump didn't consult before his sudden decision to greenlight Turkey's invasion—believes it will commit acts of genocide against the Kurds.)

Trump then claimed that the "U.S. has saved the oil." He repeated the theme at a press availability later in the day, saying, "We’ve taken control of the oil in the Middle East — the oil that we’re talking about, the oil that everybody was worried about. The U.S. has control of that.”

Trump refused to explain what he was talking about, and nobody else was able to figure it out. He also claimed that ISIS fighters were "double secured" by both Turkey and the Kurds. This is even more baffling: ISIS detainees have already escaped from the prisons that had been guarded by the Kurdish SDF, until they were forced to flee by the invading Turkish force. 

In perhaps the most astonishing lie of the day, Trump said that Syrian Kurds were "very happy about the way things are going." The Kurdish military leader in the region told Trump that he was "leaving us to be slaughtered."

More than 10,000 Syrian Kurds have died fighting on behalf of the United States against the Islamic State in Syria.

Trump is no stranger to casual lies, having told more than 13,000 of them since taking office, by one count. In front of friendly rally crowds, he tends to make a game of it, making false claims and then mocking what critics will say in response. But rarely has he told such obvious lies in the face of furious opposition from Republicans, military servicemembers, and evangelical Christians.

Why should I care about this?

  • Even by Trump's standards, these are obvious and outrageous lies.
  • A president who won't or can't explain himself even when his closest allies are begging him to change course is either incompetent or corrupt.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He awarded himself a massive government contract to host the G7.

Trump announced today that he had chosen his own property, Trump National Doral, as the site of the next G7 summit in June of 2020. It's hard to know how much money, from American taxpayers and foreign governments alike, that this will put directly into Trump's pockets—in part because Trump (in his capacity as the owner) isn't saying. But even a conservative estimate would put it in the high millions if not tens of millions of dollars.

Doral is one of the relatively few Trump-branded properties that Trump actually owns. It is heavily leveraged, and business has been terrible lately, thanks in part to dozens of health and safety violations and reports of bedbugs. (Trump denies that Doral has bedbugs, but he also paid to settle a lawsuit from a guest who was bitten by them.) June is an especially bleak month for Doral, given how hot and muggy inland Florida gets in the summer. It's also the start of hurricane season.

In a press conference today announcing the choice, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted that Trump had picked the site himself, and that no further information would ever be released about whether other sites were even considered. “If you want to see our paper on how we did this, the answer is absolutely not,” Mulvaney said.

In his previous flirtation with the idea, Trump touted Doral's abundant parking as a reason to host the G7 nations. This, at least, is accurate: Trump National Doral does have plenty of parking. It's also close to a CVS and a FedEx store.

The Constitution, in two separate clauses, forbids Trump from using the presidency to enrich himself either with foreign or domestic money. Trump refused to put his businesses in a blind trust when he took office, and is the target of several lawsuits over his attempts to use his office to prop up his businesses.

Why does this matter?

  • Using your public office to pad your personal bottom line is always wrong.
  • A president who can't decide whether he wants to do the work of his elected office or run a hotel should resign from the presidency.
  • Inviting foreign governments to pay you money personally, when you're president, is inviting foreign governments to pay you a bribe.
  • Nobody—not even Trump—seriously believes a struggling Florida golf resort in June is the right place for this kind of event.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lost it, according to everyone but him.

Today was an eventful, terrible day for Trump in the Syria debacle. He was rebuked by the House in a 354-60 vote condemning his decision to let Turkey invade northern Syria and attack the United States' former Kurdish allies. Two-thirds of House Republicans joined every Democratic member in the majority on a resolution which directly criticizes Trump.

Meanwhile, military leaders were forced to launch an airstrike against a recently evacuated American base, in order to prevent ammunition and weapons from falling into the hands of the Turkish, Russian, and pro-Assad forces expected to overtake it. The American retreat has been hasty and chaotic, because troops had essentially no warning that it would be necessary. Turkey's invasion, and the subsequent destabilization of the region, happened almost immediately after Trump gave Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan permission to move in. Because Trump didn't consult the Defense Department at all before making that sudden decision for reasons that remain unclear, the actual troops on the ground were caught off guard.

Forced to address the ever-worsening headlines, Trump appeared belligerent in front of reporters at a press conference with the visiting president of Italy. He said that America's former Kurdish allies in the area were "no angels." (In reality, the SDF did the actual on-the-ground fighting against the Islamic State in Syria. Trump himself, personally, took credit for the destruction of the Islamic State's territory later in the day.) He insisted that somehow only the most harmless ISIS insurgents escaped from prisons that the Kurds had been guarding before being forced to flee by the Turkish invasion. He claimed that he had imposed "massive sanctions" on Turkey. (That's a lie, but it's not clear that Trump knew what he was talking about.) 

Trump also said that he didn't care about Syria because it was "7,000 miles away," apparently trying to say that nothing that happened in the Middle East could really affect the United States. (Israel, two-thirds of the world's oil reserves, and the countries where most of the 9/11 attackers came from are also roughly that far away from the U.S. mainland.)

Trump was even angrier and more defensive in a meeting with lawmakers later this afternoon, insulting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi personally—as well as his own appointees—and suggesting that Democrats should be rooting for ISIS because, as he understood it, they were both "communists." People in the room at the time called it a "meltdown."

After a few hours of unflattering TV coverage, Trump re-emerged on Twitter to insist that it was Pelosi, not him, who was showing signs of mental illness.

Why does this matter?

  • Even by Trump's standards, this is a nightmare situation.
  • Presidents who can't bear to hear criticism of their decisions, no matter how many people on both sides of the aisle are making it, are unfit for office.
  • The Middle East actually is pretty important to American national security.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained the situation in Syria as only he can.

Normally, presidential meeting with sports teams (when they happen at all) are not political. Today, however, Trump interrupted himself during a visit by the Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues to try to explain his lack of response to the actions Turkey has taken in Syria since he gave them permission to invade last Sunday.

TRUMP: We want to bring our soldiers back home. And we're being very tough on Turkey and a lot of others. They have to maintain their own properties now. They have to maintain peace and safety. And we'll see what happens -- the delegation. We're asking for a ceasefire. We put the strongest sanctions that you can imagine, but they get a lot. We have a lot in store if they don’t -- if they don’t have an impact, including massive tariffs on steel. They ship a lot of steel to the United States. They make a lot of money shipping steel. They won't be making so much money.

American purchases of Turkish steel account for about three one-thousandths of the overall Turkish export market. What Trump has done so far—or rather, what he has threatened to do but not yet done—is to make that 0.3% more expensive for American consumers, which may force Turkish steelmakers to sell some of it elsewhere at slightly reduced profits.

This is no threat whatsoever to the Turkish economy, and the markets responded accordingly: the Turkish lira actually gained value against the dollar today.

In other Syrian news from today, Russian mercenary forces took over a base that American troops were forced to hastily abandon in order to try to find a safe retreat from the now-chaotic northern region. It may be the first time in history, including the Soviet era, that Russian forces have ever directly captured a military base from the United States military. Russian media arrived first and broadcast their arrival.

Trump is deeply financially entangled with both Turkey and Russia.

So what?

  • Calling this "the strongest sanctions that you can imagine" is just an outright lie.
  • It shouldn't be this hard to make sense of a president's military decisions.
  • The most likely explanation for a president's military decisions shouldn't have anything to do with his private financial situation.

Monday, October 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to sound like he was doing things with trade.

Trump made two big-sounding claims about trade today. Neither was really true.

Since Friday, Trump has been playing up a trade deal he claims he made with China as "the greatest and biggest deal ever made." He sent out surrogates today to continue the hype: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gamely told reporters about his "expectation" that a deal would still be struck, although he was visibly less enthusiastic than Trump.

But in reality, the deal doesn't exist yet, as Chinese negotiators pointedly noted. And even if it did, it would only keep the trade war with China from getting worse than it already is by suspending some planned tariff increases. (Actually, even then, other tariffs will still increase in December, inevitably leading to retaliation by China.) 

The key talking point for Trump has been a promise—again, not yet agreed to by the Chinese government—that it will buy $40 billion in agricultural products. That's a big number, but as investors noted, it's essentially meaningless. It's also unenforceable: China has never needed to buy more than $30 billion in U.S. farm products in any given year, so the promised purchases would have to be spread over a number of years, and could always be reneged on. In the meantime, though, Trump would be immediately giving up something for nothing other than the ability to claim victory.

In other trade news, Trump announced he'd be punishing Turkey for its actions in northern Syria by raising tariffs on Turkish steel by 50%. (Tariffs are taxes on foreign goods paid for by American consumers in the form of higher prices.) During the initial backlash to his still-unexplained decision to abandon the United States' Kurdish allies and permit Turkey to attack them, Trump promised to "totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey" if that country crossed any lines.

Since then, in addition to ISIS prisoners being liberated, civilians being killed, and Kurdish politicians being murdered by Turkish-backed militias, the United States has lost its only on-the-ground ally in Syria. The "punishment" Trump is promising to impose is a return to the same steel tariff levels imposed on Turkish steel in May of this year. Turkey's steel exports have been booming in recent years and the United States is a relatively small market for it.

Why does this matter?

  • Good news that doesn't exist in reality isn't good news.
  • "Punishment" that doesn't in any way hurt the country being punished is the same thing as permission—especially if you've already given permission.
  • Presidents who have accomplishments don't need to make them up to look successful.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He surrendered northern Syria to Turkey amidst ongoing war crimes, and gave the Assad regime a new ally.

Trump's original abandonment of the United States' former Kurdish allies in northern Syria only involved moving about 50 troops. By symbolically removing American protection from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the front line in the fight against Islamic State militants, Trump was giving Turkey the green light to attack them. But about 1,000 American forces would still be on the ground in Syria.

In the last day or two, there have been dramatic and horrifying developments, although they were all predicted the moment Trump allowed Turkey to invade.

  • Turkish-backed forces have captured Kurdish "terrorists" and executed them on camera. This  includes Hevrin Khalaf, a 35-year-old woman who was the secretary-general of the Future Syria Party, a Kurdish political organization. The videos were posted to social media. This is a war crime.
  • The remnants of the SDF and other Kurds in Syria have been forced into an alliance with the government of Bashar al-Assad. In other words, Trump's abandonment of them has changed the balance of power against the United States and put a vulnerable population under the direct control of America's main enemy in the region—and with it, the northeastern quarter of the country.
  • The Turkish military has pointedly ignored American requests to proceed carefully or allow civilians to stay out of harm's way. (They've also completely ignored Trump's Twitter threats to damage their economy.) This morning, Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted that Turkey would likely "extend their attack further south than originally planned."

Trump responded today by announcing that all American forces in the region would be withdrawn immediately.

How is this a problem?

  • It's wrong for the strongest military in the world to be ordered to ignore war crimes happening right in front of it.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States is perceived as being this weak.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He defended Rudy Giuliani—to a point.

Trump's new "fixer," Rudy Giuliani, is reportedly under federal investigation related to his involvement in Trump's attempt to gin up a fake Ukrainian "investigation" of his political rival Joe Biden. The news broke yesterday, just two days after Giuliani's associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested on charges related to their attempts to illegally funnel Ukrainian money to American political campaigns. 

Parnas and Fruman had lunch with Giuliani the day before their arrest, and were traveling on one-way tickets to Europe, where Giuliani had been scheduled to meet them. The two have long-standing ties to Trump, as well.

Whether Giuliani is Trump's actual lawyer is a matter of some debate. Trump himself was very reluctant yesterday to call Giuliani his lawyer. When asked, he said, "I don't know. I haven't spoken to Rudy," before correcting himself: "I spoke to him yesterday, briefly." Trump then added, equivocally, "He's a very good lawyer and he has been my lawyer, sure." Today, after leaving Giuliani's status up in the air for more than 24 hours, Trump confirmed that Giuliani is his lawyer. 

Trump has good reason to hesitate. No attorney-client privilege applies to illegal acts that the "lawyer" is party to, which means that Giuliani could testify against Trump about his Ukrainian activities, either in a court or an impeachment proceeding. But insulting Giuliani, whose temper and emotional stability are much like Trump's, could be equally disastrous.

That is presumably why Trump tweeted out his support this morning, blaming the "Deep State" for Giuliani's problems. 

The investigation into Giuliani is reportedly being done through the Southern District of New York office, whose leadership is, like all United States Attorney's offices, made up of Trump appointees.

Why should I care about this?

  • The president doesn't just get to declare his friends and/or criminal co-conspirators innocent of any crimes.
  • The reason it's important to remove presidents who are mixed up in criminal activity is that they are easily blackmailed.

Friday, October 11, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He increased the total number of American troops in the Middle East. 

When Trump suddenly capitulated to the Turkish president's demand that the United States abandon its Kurdish allies in Syria this past Sunday, he did so without consulting anyone else in his administration. The closest thing that he has offered to an explanation is that he wanted to get American troops out of "endless wars" in the region.

None of the approximately 1,000 American troops in Syria have actually left. In fact, Turkey shelled American forces in Syria today, ostensibly by accident. UPDATE, 10/12: American sources including an Army officer in the area now say that U.S. forces were deliberately "bracketed" by Turkish artillery, a hostile act.

But today, the Trump administration announced that almost 2,000 additional troops and two fighter squadrons would be deployed to Saudi Arabia. Those forces will help Saudi Arabia defend its oil infrastructure from attacks by Iran. (The destruction of the US-Kurdish alliance in Syria is very good for Iran.)

Until he became president, Trump was opposed to spending American money or lives on guarding the kingdom and said it should "fight their own wars."

As of two days ago, Trump still claimed to believe that the United States "GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE."

Trump is deeply, personally financially entangled with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia

How is this a bad thing?

  • It shouldn't even be possible to wonder if the president's military decisions have anything to do with his private business interests.
  • Getting troops out of the Middle East means having fewer of them there, not more.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told the truth about Fox News polling.

A Fox News poll released yesterday showed an absolute majority of Americans, 51%, supporting Trump's impeachment and removal from office. Other recent polls have shown substantial majorities of Americans supporting the impeachment inquiry—58% in a Washington Post poll released on Tuesday, for example—but today's poll is the first showing that more than half of Americans think Trump's actions are serious enough to warrant him being removed from office.

In response, Trump lashed out on Twitter: "From the day I announced I was running for President, I have NEVER had a good @FoxNews Poll."

This is essentially true: Fox News polls really have never had good news for Trump. For example, he has never risen above 47% approval rating in that poll since taking office. 

And Fox News predicted Hillary Clinton would beat Trump by 4% in the 2016 election. (In reality, she beat him by 3% in the popular vote.)

In other words, even though the network's programming is extremely Trump-friendly, Fox News polls are among the most accurate out there. Polling analysis website gives Fox an A rating. Trump has never had a good Fox News poll because he has never had much popular support. 

This most recent polls showing a majority of Americans want Trump removed from office was taken between October 6-8. It does not reflect today's arrest of two associates of his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, for campaign finance crimes apparently related to Trump's own attempts to gin up Ukrainian interference in American elections.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Just because the president doesn't like hearing something doesn't mean it's not true.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained his abandonment of the United States' Kurdish allies as only he could.

By the time it was morning in Washington today, Turkey had already commenced airstrikes and a ground invasion of the region of Northern Syria previously controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish military organization allied with the United States. Turkey regards the SDF—and the Kurdish ethnic group in general—as enemies. 

By this evening, there were reports of Kurdish fatalities as a result of the assault, including civilians.

This was the predictable (and predicted) consequence of Trump's decision to pull American troops out of Syria. The US-SDF relationship had been mutually beneficial: American troops safeguarded the SDF at virtually no risk to themselves, while the SDF acted as a front-line counter-terrorism force against the Assad regime and fighters allied with the Islamic State. 

Put another way, Trump's debatable claims that ISIS was defeated on his watch—at least in terms of controlling territory—are owed in large part to the work of the SDF.

Genuinely bipartisan outrage at the United States' betrayal of its Kurdish allies followed, forcing Trump to try to explain himself today. It's still not clear why Trump so abruptly gave in to Turkish president Erdoğan's demands—although Turkey does seem to be on the list of countries with suspiciously strong influence over Trump's actions. He began with a statement in which he called the Turkish invasion a "bad idea," but didn't even ask Turkey to pull back.

Later in the day, Trump told reporters that the SDF had been allied with the United States for, he implied, selfish reasons. 
The Kurds are fighting for their land, just so you understand. And somebody wrote a very, very powerful article today. They didn't help us in the Second World War, they didn't help us with Normandy, as an example.
Trump also complained about the cost of supporting the SDF's operations in Syria, which by any standard has been a bargain. When a reporter pointed out that ISIS prisoners that the SDF had been guarding were likely to escape, Trump replied, "Well, they'll be escaping to Europe."

Why does this matter?

  • A president who abruptly and without explanation does things that help only America's enemies is unfit to serve, regardless of the reason.
  • Presidents should be able to coherently explain why they did what they did.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got his bluff called by Turkey in a humiliating fashion.

On Sunday, Trump announced—without having consulted anyone in the State Department or the military—that he was withdrawing American troops from their protective role in Syria. The effect was to abandon the United States' allies in the Syrian conflict, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. There was bipartisan outrage over the move.

On Monday, in an attempt to ease fears that the authoritarian government of Turkey (which is hostile to the Kurds) would attack the SDF, Trump tweeted a threat to "totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey" if they did "anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits." Turkey's vice-president responded that the country would "not react to threats."

This afternoon, in an attempt to undo the damage of the previous two days and demonstrate some control over the situation, Trump announced that he would welcome Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the White House in November. 

Tonight, reports are coming in that Turkey is shelling SDF forces and that a ground invasion is imminent, in coordination with Russia. The SDF has announced that guarding prisons containing captured Islamic State prisoners is now a "second priority" because of the Turkish threat.

Trump profits from the licensing of his personal brand on property in Turkey* and admitted during the campaign that he has a "conflict of interest"—his words—where that country is concerned. Trump's election was accomplished with help from Russia, as a Republican-led Senate panel confirmed today.

Why does this matter?

  • Countries that abandon their allies end up without allies.
  • Anyone who puts their personal or political needs above those of the country is unfit to be president.
  • Being disregarded like this makes Trump, and the United States, look incredibly weak.

* Trump licenses his name to Trump Towers Istanbul, but does not own them. A previous version of this post mistakenly identified him as a property owner in Turkey.

Monday, October 7, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He whistled past the graveyard of impeachment.

Today, at a White House event, Trump was asked by a reporter to comment on a letter that White House lawyers were planning to send to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In response, Trump launched into a rambling, minutes-long, stream-of-consciousness answer. Among the things he said was this interesting claim:

TRUMP: This [impeachment] is a scam.  And the people are wise to it.  And that’s why my polls went up, I think they said, 17 points in the last two or three days.  I’ve never had that one.  I’ve never had that one.

He still hasn't.

Trump's approval rating has not gone up 17 points, or any points, since the corruption scandal that is now likely to lead to his impeachment broke two weeks ago. Since his administration was caught trying to suppress a whistleblower with knowledge of his attempt to get Ukraine to intervene in the election, his numbers have dropped in all major polls.

Meanwhile, support for his impeachment and/or removal from office has sharply risen. A slight majority of Americans now favor impeachment. Before the Ukraine story broke, Americans opposed impeachment by an average of about 11 points.

UPDATE, 10/8: A new Washington Post/Schar School poll reports that 58% of Americans support the impeachment inquiry, and that 49% of Americans say they already believe there is enough evidence to warrant Trump being removed from office. With the impeachment inquiry barely underway, almost 1 in 5 Republicans (18%) already support Trump's removal.

It's likely Trump, who is no stranger to simply making up stories on the spot, just invented the number. But pretending he's popular (or even that a bare majority of Americans don't want him tossed out of office) is probably a survival strategy for Trump, who is deeply personally unpopular with the Republican senators who will serve as jurors in any impeachment trial. Former Republican senator Jeff Flake, among others, has said that if the vote to convict were done by secret ballot, 35 of the chamber's 53 Republicans would vote to remove Trump from office.

Trump further angered many of those Republican senators today with his plan to, in his "great and unmatched wisdom," completely abandon America's Kurdish allies in Syria and force them into an alliance with the Iran/Russia/Islamic State axis. Among the Republican senators furious with this sudden and radical change in America's military stance and speaking out today were Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

Why should I care about this?

  • Politicians who are genuinely popular don't need to lie about their popularity.
  • In a democracy, "the people" tell presidents how they feel about them, not the other way around.
  • It's bad if the president makes a snap decision that will help the United States' enemies without consulting American officials because a foreign leader told him to.