Saturday, November 30, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He did about as much as he usually does on a Saturday, Sunday, Friday after mid-morning, or more than half of any given weekday.

Trump tweeted over and over again today about what he called "do-nothing Democrats," as part of a new public relations campaign to help survive the impeachment inquiry. The idea is to make Trump seem so busy with the work of the presidency that impeachment seems like a distraction.

These are the reports filed today by the pool reporter assigned to travel with and report on Trump. "Lid" means that Trump's day is over.

In other words, while Trump was tweeting about "do-nothing Democrats," he was doing it from one of his luxury resorts (where he's spent about every fourth day of his term) and specifically the golf course (where he's spent about every fifth day). 

So what?

  • People who want to look like they're working hard should try working hard, or at all.

Friday, November 29, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted China had the upper hand in trade talks, although it's not clear if he knew he was doing that.

According to an announcement made today by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Trump—or at least someone in his administration—has decided to waive tariffs on a huge swath of Chinese imports. 

In practice, what this means is that American consumers will be spared a fraction of the taxes they'd otherwise pay in the form of higher prices. (Trump has insisted that tariffs don't work this way. They do. He is either lying or—considering how long the trade war has lasted—incredibly slow to learn the basics of his job.)

The tit-for-tat tariffs that Trump and China's government have imposed on one another are meant to cause pain in each other's economic base. There is no reason whatsoever to reduce tariffs before a deal is reached, except to try to cushion American retailers and consumers from the worst of the trade war pain. But in doing so, Trump is also taking pressure off China—which was supposedly the whole point of the trade war in the first place.

In other words, the Trump administration is showing weakness even as China is taking tougher stances in trade talks. 

Trump, who desperately needs to keep confidence in the economy high, promised six weeks ago that those talks were already in the bag. It has been almost 21 months since Trump declared that trade wars were "easy to win."

Trump himself, who is recovering today from the strain of several long plane rides, has not commented.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who can't or won't learn basic economics can't do the job.
  • Pretending a problem doesn't exist isn't the same thing as solving it.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied to American troops stationed overseas.

Trump made his first-ever visit to Afghanistan, three years into his presidency, for the Thanksgiving holiday. While there, he spoke to servicemembers. His speech was heavy on self-pity: he complained repeatedly about unnamed people who, supposedly, had criticized him for his pro-military stance. 

But mostly, Trump seemed concerned with painting a picture of himself as the savior of a weak American military. He repeatedly claimed he'd inherited an underfunded military, and personally restored it:

You know, when I took office -- if you can believe it, almost three years ago -- we were very depleted. Our military was depleted, in terms of equipment. You see, right? They were all shaking their heads. That's right. We have all those brand-new planes and brand-new helicopters and brand-new ships being built now. Brand-new, incredible submarines. Probably the most powerful submarines -- probably the most powerful weapon in the world, is what we're building, in the form of submarines. Nobody's -- nothing is even close.

In reality, Trump inherited a military that was bigger than the next seven biggest combined, and which accounted for more than a third of the world's military spending. Defense spending has not measurably increased under Trump, because Congress—not the president—sets the military's budget.

Trump returned to the theme at the end of his remarks with a "sir" story—a verbal tic of Trump's where someone—always unnamed—addresses him as "sir" and then lavishes praises him:

When I’m greeted -- and I’m often greeted -- by leaders of the world, they start off by saying two things: “Congratulations on what you’ve done with your country, from an economic standpoint. We’ve never seen anything like it.” And, “Sir, congratulations on rebuilding your military.”

Trump may genuinely believe that this is how "leaders of the world" have greeted him. But as a matter of actual numerical facts, the economy is no stronger under Trump, either.

Why should this bother me?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.
  • The United States military isn't supposed to be a political prop.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got his story straight with his lawyer.

Trump took a phone call from Rudy Giuliani today. Giuliani is—as far as we know—still Trump's lawyer, but for much of the last few weeks, the two men have been carefully trading warning shots in the press over who will take the fall for the ever-widening Ukrainian scandal.

Earlier in the week, Giuliani told Fox News that he had "insurance" against any attempt Trump might make to pin criminal responsibility on him. He later claimed he meant he had blackmail information against the Biden family, although this doesn't make much sense, since there's no reason he'd withhold any such evidence if he had it.

By the time the phone call between the two men took place, Giuliani had dropped the Biden story and is now insisting that he was just joking about the "insurance" remark.

Trump, for his part, radically changed his story during an interview with Bill O'Reilly yesterday. He now claims that he never ordered Giuliani to do anything with respect to Ukraine, and that Giuliani was simply freelancing in his search for "corruption." This, of course, completely contradicts the notes that the White House released of the "perfect" call with the Ukrainian president, in which Trump repeatedly demanded that President Zelensky work with Giuliani specifically.

Giuliani has especially good reason to be worried about what Trump might do next, since the way he talked about Giuliani in that interview was strikingly similar to how he talked about his last "fixer," Michael Cohen, right before Trump turned on him completely. Cohen is now in prison for crimes he committed on Trump's behalf. 

Why should I care about this?

  • Criminals don't usually go around committing freelance crimes on behalf of innocent people.
  • Innocent people don't keep changing their story.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He signed a bill authorizing a commemorative coin.

Today, Trump signed a bill authorizing the Treasury to mint a $1 commemorative coin celebrating the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in 2020.

What's wrong with that?

  • Nothing.

What else did Donald Trump do today?

He patted himself on the back over the centennial of women's suffrage happening during his presidency.

At the signing ceremony, Trump said this:

TRUMP: And I’m curious, why wasn’t it done a long time ago, and also — well, I guess the answer to that is because now I’m President, and we get things done.  We get a lot of things done that nobody else got done.

It's certainly true that no president before Trump had a term that included the year 2020.

The bill Trump signed was introduced in April, and passed unanimously through both houses of Congress. As is typical for uncontroversial bills of this type, the Trump administration took no part in "getting things done."

Trump actually does have a legislative history where women and currency are concerned, though. A new version of the $20 bill with abolitionist and former slave Harriet Tubman replacing Trump's political hero Andrew Jackson was scheduled to come out in 2020. Trump's Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, delayed that change until 2026—when Trump would be out of office even if re-elected—because Trump said honoring Tubman was “pure political correctness.”

What's wrong with that?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you had nothing to do with.

Monday, November 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got told that he wasn't a king.

In both the impeachment inquiry and the Russia investigation, Trump has repeatedly ordered executive branch employees to refuse to appear before Congress—something he has no legal authority to do. This assertion of "absolute immunity" from any oversight whatsoever dovetails with Trump's claim, made last month in federal court, that he could even commit murder and be immune from any investigation at any level of government while he held office. 

Today, a federal judge issued an astonishingly long and detailed ruling making clear that neither Trump nor any other president has the power to simply ignore Congress's Constitutional powers of oversight.
The immediate effect is that Trump's former White House counsel, Don McGahn, will be required to appear before Congress. McGahn played a major role in the Russia scandal by refusing to allow Trump to further obstruct justice by firing the special counsel conducting the investigation, and other "crazy shit," to use McGahn's words. 

The ruling by federal district judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was unusually detailed and forceful. It stands a good chance of becoming binding precedent—because courts have never been forced to rule before on whether the presidency is somehow above all other branches of government. As Jackson put it in her summation:

Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings. This means that they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control. Rather, in this land of liberty, it is indisputable that current and former employees of the White House work for the People of the United States, and that they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Moreover, as citizens of the United States, current and former senior-level presidential aides have constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, and they retain these rights even after they have transitioned back into private life.

Trump is expected to appeal the ruling that he is not a king.

Why should I care about this? 

  • It shouldn't take a federal judge to explain to a president that he is not above the law.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He fired his Secretary of the Navy for not taking orders via tweet.

Earlier this month, Trump overturned a demotion issued to Navy E-7 Eddie Gallagher for a war crimes conviction, and pardoned or commuted the sentences of two other servicemembers accused or convicted of war crimes. Gallagher had been convicted of desecration of a corpse for posing for a picture of himself with a dead combatant, and was suspected of killing civilians. The other two were either convicted or awaiting trial for murders committed in Afghanistan. 

The pardons were not popular with veterans or serving troops, and seem to have been designed to change the conversation about Trump's deployment of forces in the Middle East. Trump has forced American troops to break faith with their warfighting allies in Syria, and has increased the number of servicemembers in the region even as he claims to be reducing them.

This week, Trump waded further into the Navy's internal discipline procedures, tweeting—but not ordering—that he would not be expelled from the SEALs. Richard Spencer, Secretary of the Navy, told reporters that he had received no such order from Trump and that the normal disciplinary process would continue until he was told otherwise. He also denied reports that he had threatened to resign in protest if Trump interjected himself into the process and allowed a convicted war criminal were allowed to keep his SEAL pin.

This afternoon, the White House put out a statement agreeing with Spencer's position, saying that the White House would not intervene in the review of Gallagher's status.

Then tonight, Trump fired Spencer and ordered that Gallagher keep his SEAL pin. 

Trump and the White House have put out conflicting stories about exactly why, but the gist of it appears to be that Trump was unhappy that Spencer had failed to shield him from the overwhelming opposition inside the Navy to his actions. 

Why does this matter?

  • The military isn't supposed to be used as a political distraction.
  • The fact that the military has to obey the president's orders doesn't mean those orders aren't stupid or harmful.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States isn't strong enough to be able to hear opinions other than his own.
  • It's a huge problem Eddie Gallagher is Trump's idea of what the military should look like.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He whistled past the graveyard of impeachment.

As usual for a Saturday (for him), Trump had nothing on his work schedule and spent most of the day tweeting and visiting one of his properties

Recently, his social media strategy on his likely impeachment has been to insist that he looks forward to it. According to people close to him, this is a lie, and he's alternately angry and depressed by the stigma of being impeached, even if he's likely to be acquitted by Republicans in the Senate.

Nevertheless, it makes political sense for Trump to pretend he's not worried, which may account for this tweet from this morning:

In reality, polls continue to show a majority of Americans in favor of the inquiry, and more in favor of Trump's removal than who think he should be allowed to stay in office. Every single independent national poll taken in the last month has showed net support for the investigation, and 26 out of 30 polls taken in the last 30 days show net support for Trump's removal.

As for Trump's claim that he will "compel" the testimony of Rep. Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee Chair who is leading the impeachment committee, it's at least theoretically possible for him to be called as a witness. The problem for Trump is that Schiff has no reason not to answer questions. Trump has claimed to be deeply offended by Schiff paraphrasing the Trump-Zelensky call to call attention to the extortion aspect of it, which may say as much about the effectiveness as about Trump's emotional stability. But it's not clear what Trump thinks he would gain by more theatrics on the subject.

So what?

  • Once you leave grade school, lying about being popular doesn't make you popular.
  • The work of the presidency demands a certain degree of emotional stability.

Friday, November 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He hinted he'd be willing to trade American foreign policy for political help from the Chinese government.

During a rambling and occasionally paranoid 53-minute phone interview on Fox and Friends this morning, Trump spoke about the ongoing violence in Hong Kong. He claimed, bizarrely, that he "stands with" both the Chinese government and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors. He then said, "If it weren't for me, Hong Kong would've been obliterated in 14 minutes." 

This is, to put it mildly, ridiculous. Other than a few tweets praising the "great leader" Xi Jinping, Trump has stayed completely away from the matter, refusing to offer even mild criticism of the brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy protestors. 

The main reason for Trump's timidity is that he's vulnerable. China has Trump over a barrel in the trade war that he started last May: while the tariffs both countries have imposed are hurting their respective economies, Xi Jinping is not facing an election in 2020. Trump, meanwhile, is looking at record farm bankruptcies and a manufacturing sector that is already in an official recession, both caused by his trade war. 

China is increasingly unwilling to help Trump save face at the bargaining table. More than a month ago, Trump prematurely announced that he'd secured "the greatest and biggest deal ever made" with China. Even if it had been signed, it would only have prevented the expansion of the trade war—and China hasn't signed it.

During the interview today, Trump pointedly refused to commit to signing a bill that levies sanctions on China for the atrocities its government has committed against the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which is now on Trump's desk, passed the Senate 100-0 and the House 417-1.

In other words, Trump is hinting that he's open to letting China's leaders off the hook for bad things they did do if they'll let him out of the trade war that he blundered into.

Why should I care about this?

  • The United States' position on human rights and democracy is not supposed to be for sale.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to work the "jury."

In a highly unusual move for him, Trump had lunch with a group of Senate Republicans. They included the ones generally considered most likely to consider voting to remove him from office, Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine.

In and of itself, this is neither improper nor illegal, in the way that a criminal defendant meeting with jurors in his trial would be. Impeachment is a political process, and senators are not really "jurors" in an impeachment trial. (This has been a favorite excuse of senators recently who have not wanted to have to defend Trump's actions to reporters.)

But Trump seems to want all the rights and privileges of a criminal defendant with none of the risks. He's repeatedly complained he's not getting "due process" in the House impeachment inquiry. This isn't true: he's just refused to participate (which is probably wise, from a legal standpoint, since he'd be extremely likely to perjure himself), and he's tried with mixed results to keep other witnesses from testifying. 

He's also withheld evidence from both the Russia investigation and the impeachment inquiry, something a criminal defendant would be unable to do. Trump has even argued in federal court that he can never be investigated for any crime while in office, much less indicted.

The lunch came after a morning tweet in which Trump said that people who did support the impeachment inquiry were "human scum" and that he would survive the process because the trial would be conducted on his "turf," meaning the Republican-controlled Senate.

51% of Americans support impeachment and removal, and 70% believe Trump did something wrong, according to the most recent poll. Trump hasn't said whether he thinks all such people are "human scum."

How is this a bad thing?

  • Dehumanizing the leader's political enemies is what authoritarians do.
  • Innocent people who control evidence or witnesses that prove their innocence usually don't refuse to share it with the world.
  • Voters might get a little tired of the most powerful person in the world complaining about how unfair things are for him.
  • The president is not above the law.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about creating jobs, this time for Apple.

Trump traveled to Texas today, where he met with Apple CEO Tim Cook and toured a factory that assembles Mac desktop computers. On the tour, and later in a tweet, Trump repeatedly claimed that he—personally—had "opened a major Apple Manufacturing plant in Texas that will bring high paying jobs back to America."

This is a lie. The factory that assembles the computers has been open since 2013. What is new in Austin is an office park, scheduled to open in 2022, where Apple is relocating some of its existing American managerial staff.

Trump also claimed that Apple would avoid tariffs because of the (existing) Texas plant. This is also false, although it's never clear how much Trump knows about how his own tariffs work. The Texas facility assembles parts made in China, and those parts are taxed as they enter the United States for assembly—meaning that American consumers pay those taxes in the form of higher retail costs.

But Trump, who desperately needs economic good news, said he was considering exempting Apple from those tariffs. He did not explain why other American companies wouldn't get a similar benefit, but Cook, the Apple CEO, has carefully built a relationship with Trump.

Ironically, the tariffs Trump imposed on Chinese high-tech goods don't apply to finished products. This means that if Apple were being influenced in terms of where to have their products made by Trump's actual tariffs, there would be an incentive to move assembly out of the United States.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.
  • It shouldn't be this easy to manipulate the President of the United States.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told a lie that revealed more than he probably meant to.

Today, in a tweet, Trump quoted Nancy Pelosi as saying:

It is dangerous to let the voters decide Trump’s fate.

In reality, what Pelosi really said was:

The weak response to these hearings has been, ‘Let the election decide.’ That dangerous position only adds to the urgency of our action, because the President is jeopardizing the integrity of the 2020 elections.

In other words, Pelosi is supporting impeachment because Trump himself is endangering the election, by asking foreign countries to interfere with it as they did in 2016.

Trump is understandably nervous about the damage impeachment could do to his already shaky re-election prospects—especially since the sooner he leaves office, the more vulnerable he is to prosecution. According to a poll released yesterday, 51% of Americans support his impeachment and removal from office, and 70% believe he has done something wrong.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to lie to voters.

Monday, November 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about imaginary poll numbers that don't really make him look good anyway.

Trump's ability to survive the Ukraine bribery scandal has a lot to do with his standing among the Republican politicians who will be forced to decide whether or not to risk their own reputations to defend him. He injected himself into two gubernatorial races in conservative southern states recently, campaigning hard for the Republican candidates, only to see Democrats elected—likely because he helped energize his opponents more than his allies. 

Today, he repeated a familiar claim on Twitter: that Republicans are "united" behind him, with a 95% approval rating in the party. He went on to say that this meant he was "winning" the impeachment process. As usual, he didn't cite any particular poll or other evidence. 

In reality, his support among Republican voters is actually much lower now that the Ukraine scandal has come to light: only 74% approve of his performance, according to a recent poll. That's not absolutely terrible by modern standards of same-party support, but there's another problem: Trump has almost no support outside the GOP, including among independent voters. Republicans make up about 28% of the electorate.

In other polling news released today, an ABC/Ipsos poll reported that 51% of Americans think he should be impeached and removed from office. Even worse, with the impeachment inquiry barely underway, fully 70% already think he did something wrong by demanding that Ukraine interfere in the 2020 election or risk losing desperately needed military aid. The results are in line with all other recent polls on impeachment.

Who cares?

  • At least after grade school, pretending you are popular doesn't make you popular.
  • Presidents are supposed to care about all Americans, not just the ones they think might vote for them.
  • In a democracy, voters choose the government, not the other way around.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He joked about North Korea's call for Joe Biden's murder, apparently in the hopes that it would earn him some points with Kim Jong-un.

North Korea's state-controlled media said that 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden was a "rabid dog" who should be "beaten to death with a stick." It's not clear exactly what Biden did to offend Kim Jong-un, but the former vice-president—like virtually everyone in either party besides Trump—has been frank about calling out the atrocities committed by the North Korean dictator.

Kim has no power to act on his threat, but a nuclear-armed rogue state making a death threat against an American citizen—much less a potential president—would normally provoke some kind of response. For his part, Trump did two things today.

The first was to use the report of the threat as an excuse to insult Biden.

The second, which Trump may have been trying to draw attention away from with his taunt, was to announce via his acting Secretary of Defense that he was making yet another military concession to North Korea as an "act of goodwill." 

Since first meeting with Kim on a peer-to-peer basis last June, Trump has twice altered U.S. military deployments in the region to suit Kim's liking, and ignored North Korea's rapidly accelerated testing of the missiles that would be used to deliver their nuclear stockpile. 

In return, North Korea has made no concessions whatsoever—it hasn't even agreed in principle to reduce its nuclear stockpile in the future—most likely because it doesn't have to. Trump prematurely declared that he'd ended the nuclear threat from North Korea after their first meeting, inadvertently giving Kim—who doesn't have to face re-election—enormous political leverage over Trump, who does. 

That's probably why Trump ended his insults to Biden with a plea for Kim to come back to the negotiating table.

Why does this matter?

  • The President of the United States cannot be this weak in the face of a nuclear threat to the country.
  • Even by Trump's standards, joking about the murder of political enemies to score points with a dictator is pretty awful.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He plugged his son's book again, this time with a new kind of lie.

Trump once again used his office to promote a family member's business today, plugging his son Donald Jr.'s book on Twitter for the second time in as many weeks. Trump claimed that the book was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list before demanding that his supporters "keep it there."

Trump is actually telling the truth, as far as it goes: Trump Jr.'s book is, in fact, at the top of the list this week. But for decades, the NYT list has put a dagger (†) symbol next to books where the sales figures have been artificially inflated by bulk purchases. This is rare, and usually happens with political books, where political organizations can use large purchases to funnel money to an influential author while saving him the embarrassment of low sales figures. 

Trump Jr.'s book received the dagger. No other book currently on the list did—and this week's list includes a book about "gutsy women" by Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, a book about Russian oil barons by progressive MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, and a book about serial sexual predators and how the media protects them (in which Trump Sr. is discussed) by journalist Ronan Farrow.

The Republican National Committee, which is effectively an arm of Donald Trump Sr.'s 2020 presidential campaign, has admitted to giving away freebie copies of Trump Jr.'s book to donors. It has refused to say how many copies of Trump Jr.'s book it has purchased.  

Any other government employee promoting a family member's business this way would be subject to prosecution.

So what?

  • It's always wrong to use your public office for private gain, even if you can get away with it.

Friday, November 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said it was unfair that people convicted of lying to Congress should go to jail when people who didn't lie to Congress walk free.

Trump's friend and campaign surrogate Roger Stone was convicted today on all seven counts of witness tampering, lying to Congress, and obstruction of justice. Stone's crimes amounted to telling lies under oath to protect Trump by throwing Congress and the special counsel's investigation off the scent of Russia's connection via Wikileaks to the Trump campaign, and then threatening a witness who could expose him.

Trump reacted badly. He immediately posted this question on Twitter:

None of the people Trump mentioned—all either political enemies of his, or involved in some way with the investigation the illegal help Trump received from Russia to get elected—has been convicted of, investigated for, or even suspected of lying (or witness tampering) by his own Department of Justice. Stone's prosecution was overseen by US Attorney Jessie Liu, a Trump appointee who worked on his transition team.

How is this a bad thing?

  • In a democracy, who is innocent and guilty of crimes is about more than whether or not the president likes them.
  • It's bad when the president's friends and campaign team members are convicted of crimes related to their efforts to get a foreign country to interfere in his election.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made his final appeal to keep his tax returns secret.

Trump filed an appeal with the Supreme Court today in what will be, from a legal perspective, his last chance to keep his personal and business tax returns from law enforcement officials. 

There is overwhelming evidence that Trump got much of his inheritance from his father, amounting to the present-day equivalent of almost half a billion dollars, through tax fraud. He can no longer be prosecuted for those apparent crimes because the statute of limitations has expired, although the threat of an internal investigation forced his sister, a federal judge, to retire.

Congress is (separately) attempting to exercise its legal right to review his personal tax returns because Trump is widely suspected of having participated in money laundering for Russian oligarchs, among other crimes that would make him vulnerable to blackmail. But the present case, brought by the Manhattan District Attorney's office, is about his business returns. Trump is suspected of having laundered hush-money payments to women he had sex with through the Trump Organization.

There is a legal theory that a sitting president cannot be indicted, although this has never been tested in the courts. It is the prevailing interpretation at the Department of Justice, which is why the special counsel Robert Mueller did not seek Trump's indictment. Trump's argument in the tax case, which every lower court has emphatically rejected, is that not only can he not be indicted, he can't even be investigated, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is that he committed a crime.

In other words, Trump is arguing that while he remains in office, he is above the law, and that impeachment is the only remedy for a lawbreaking president. (He's also said it's illegal to impeach him because he hasn't been convicted of crimes.)

Neither the District Attorney nor Congress would be permitted to make Trump's tax returns public, except for anything that might be introduced as evidence in a criminal trial. Trump is the only president or presidential candidate since Richard Nixon to refuse to let the public verify that his finances are legitimate.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents are not above the law.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pretended he didn't watch the impeachment hearings he was clearly watching.

The White House today launched an all-hands effort to deny that there was anything to see at the first day of public testimony at the House impeachment hearings. Asked if Trump was watching the testimony of U.S. ambassador Bill Taylor and State Department Ukraine expert George Kent, seldom-seen White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told reporters, “He’s in the Oval in meetings. Not watching. He’s working.” 

Trump then spent the day tweeting, 34 times as of 9:20 p.m. EST, about the hearings he supposedly wasn't watching. 

Trump's voracious TV appetite has frustrated his staff in the past, but he could be forgiven for spending the day in front of the tube today. His political life—and very likely his ability to avoid criminal charges after he leaves office—hang in the balance, and this public unveiling of the case for impeachment will weigh heavily in what happens next. Trump seems to have resigned himself to being the third U.S. president to be impeached, and is concentrating on avoiding being removed from office by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Speaking of Senate Republicans, Trump did spend some time away from his phone today, when he hosted some of them at a meeting with visiting Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Senators in both parties were outraged when Trump allowed Erdoğan to invade Syria and attack the United States' former Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State. In front of reporters, Trump, who declared himself a "big fan" of Erdoğan, defended the Turkish president against the Republican senators' questions, and nodded along as Erdoğan called the Syrian Kurds that did the bulk of the fighting against the Islamic State "terrorists."

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents who don't commit impeachable offenses don't get distracted by impeachment proceedings.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about DACA.

DACA is the government program that gives certain children, brought illegally to the United States by their parents, the lowest priority for deportation. It also allows people given this designation—many of whom do not remember their native country, or speak its language—the ability to work legally, get driver's licenses, and otherwise lead a relatively normal life.

Today, Trump tweeted this:

It's true that some DACA recipients are "no longer very young," although it's not clear why Trump thinks this matters. Every other part of this is false—in particular the part about "some" being "tough, hardened criminals." This is a callback to the first days of his 2016 campaign, when he said that Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug dealers. 

By definition, DACA recipients cannot have been convicted of a felony, or a "significant misdemeanor" (including charges related to domestic violence, sexual abuse or exploitation, unlawful possession or use of a firearm, drug sales, burglary, or drunk driving). Three minor misdemeanors (like, for example, public intoxication or littering) also completely disqualify an applicant, and even one can result in a DACA recipient's status being revoked.

Trump himself is "no angel," having been credibly accused of felonies ranging from sexual assault to tax fraud, which would likely result in his being discretionarily excluded from DACA participation if the Department of Homeland Security were aware of the accusations. Among the people in his orbit who would also be barred from DACA by virtue of being "tough, hardened criminals" include:

  • Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager (convicted of 17 felonies)
  • Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer and "fixer" (convicted of campaign finance violations related to Trump's attempts to pay hush money to his sexual partners, and of making false statements to the U.S. Senate)
  • Rick Gates, Trump's campaign co-chair (convicted on two felony counts of making false statements and conspiracy against the United States)
  • George Papadopoulos, Trump's campaign national security advisor and Russia contact (convicted of one felony count of making false statements)
  • Michael Flynn, Trump's disgraced national security advisor and campaign surrogate (convicted of making false statements during the Russia investigation)

Other Trump-connected individuals whose criminal trials are ongoing or whose convictions haven't yet been finalized—which would be enough to prevent them from renewing DACA status, especially if they were incarcerated during their trial—include:

  • Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, "associates" of Trump's current lawyer Rudy Giuliani who were involved in the Ukraine bribery scandal, currently facing charges related to illegally funneling foreign money to U.S. political campaigns
  • Roger Stone, currently on trial for seven counts of witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and perjury related to his role as a conduit between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks, which Russia was using to illegally help Trump get elected

Trump's position on DACA has varied wildly during the course of his term, to the point that he has occasionally forgotten what it is entirely during negotiations with Congress about it. One political reality he appeared to forget today was that DACA recipients are much, much more popular than he is.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to accuse people of crimes they have, by definition, not committed.
  • Bigotry is as bigotry does.

Monday, November 11, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about protecting whistleblowers.

Trump has spent much of the last month demanding that the intelligence community whistleblower, whose report (now supported by about a dozen witnesses, and Trump's own carefully edited memos) spurred the current impeachment inquiry. The law says that whistleblowers are entitled to anonymity, and even though the whistleblower and his or her lawyers have received death threats, Trump has rarely missed a chance to insist that impeachment somehow doesn't count unless he can unmask the person he blames for getting caught.

Today, Trump tweeted, "To think I signed the Whistleblower Protection Act!"

The actual law protecting the intelligence community from Trump getting revenge on them was signed by President Clinton in 1998 after being passed nearly unanimously through a Republican-led Congress. 

Trump has spent much of his time in office—including the time he spent extorting election interference from Ukraine—trying to undermine, weaken, or discredit the United States' intelligence agencies. It was their work that first brought to light Russia's illegal efforts to help him get elected.

How is this a problem?

  • The only way this is not a blatant lie to the American public is if Trump is too senile to remember what bills he's signed.
  • Innocent people don't try to expose witnesses against them to harassment and death threats.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said that the media was bad because James O'Keefe said so.

After a busy Saturday of 82 tweets (and no work-related activity), Trump was relatively restrained today with his screen-time, but it did involve him tweeting this:

James O'Keefe is a convicted criminal who specializes in hoax videos in which he supposedly catches liberal organizations or media outlets in misbehavior. He's been caught trying to sneak into a senator's office to tamper with the phones. Last year he attempted to plant false allegations of sexual assault against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, in order to discredit Moore's actual accusers by uncovering the hoax later. (The targeted paper, the Washington Post, refused to print the uncorroborated story.) In 2010, he planned to try to discredit a CNN reporter interviewing him by renting a boat, stocking it with sex toys, and seducing her—and then called her a "bubble-headed-bleach-blonde" when the plan backfired

Like a number of professional trolls, O'Keefe has been running out of patrons lately. But Trump has made no secret of his desire to discredit all media sources that he doesn't directly control. And given that Trump's ability to escape criminal prosecution seems increasingly tied to his ability to stay in office, it is more important than ever for Trump that his supporters tune out any evidence that doesn't fit with the Trump narrative.

Who cares?

  • There are more important things for a president to do than promote internet trolls.
  • In a democracy, leaders defend free speech even though it might be used against them.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised to try to confuse the Ukraine issue even more.

The reason that Trump is facing impeachment over his attempts to extort Ukraine for political interference on his behalf in the 2020 election is that he got caught—mostly by himself. By releasing a partial summary of the July 25th phone call in which he personally pressured the Ukrainian president to gin up an "investigation" of Joe Biden's son, Trump confirmed all the accusations made by the whistleblower. (He did this over the objections of his own staff, who had taken extreme measures to hide the summary on a secret, classified server.)

Now, apparently having realized his mistake, Trump said today that he would release a second "transcript" from an April 21 call with Ukraine's President Zelensky in which—presumably—he doesn't attempt any extortion. The call took place shortly after Zelensky's election, and such calls are usually just formalities and congratulations.

Trump has claimed that Democrats have been "clamoring" for this April transcript. This isn't true, although there are many other potentially incriminating documents that Democrats have demanded that he hasn't released—including an actual, verbatim transcript of the July 25th call. As incriminating as the partial summary memo of the July call is, witnesses have testified that it was edited to protect Trump.

So what?

  • Proving you didn't commit crimes on April 21st doesn't change what you've already admitted to doing on July 25th.

Friday, November 8, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got ready to throw Gordon Sondland under the bus.

Gordon Sondland is the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. A former hotel developer with no political or diplomatic experience other than giving Trump $1 million in inaugural funds, Sondland played a role in the Trump-Ukraine scandal when he tried to help Ukrainian officials "navigate" Trump's demands for their interference in the upcoming American presidential election. 

Last month, Trump tweeted this about Sondland:

I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the see. Importantly, Ambassador Sondland’s tweet, which few report, stated, “I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” That says it ALL!

Sondland later admitted that he had texted the "crystal clear" quote to Ukrainian ambassador Bill Taylor on Trump's specific orders. At the time, Trump's attempt to force Ukraine to "investigate" Joe Biden's family hadn't yet been made public, so trying to cover it up in advance means Trump knew what he was doing was wrong.

Earlier this week, fearing perjury charges after other witnesses' testimony contradicted his, Sondland amended his testimony. In the revised version, he said he "now recalled" telling Ukrainian officials that Trump would not released the desperately needed $400 million in military aid unless they made a "public statement" about Biden's family. As a Department of Homeland Security official testified, Trump "wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to a microphone and say 'investigations, Biden and Clinton.'" Zelensky had reluctantly made plans to appear on CNN and say just that when Congressional pressure forced the release of the withheld aid.

In short: Sondland was a Trump ally tasked to help Trump threaten Ukraine without the State Department or the national security community finding out about it. When they were caught, Sondland initially told Trump's version of the story, but then fessed up when he realized the legal jeopardy he was in.

Today, asked specifically about Sondland for the first time since he changed his testimony, Trump said, "I hardly knew the gentleman." This is in line with the White House's latest impeachment defense: that Sondland—along with Mick Mulvaney and Rudy Giulianitook it on themselves to try to force Ukraine to help Trump in the 2020 elections without Trump knowing about it.

Abandoning underlings in order to save himself is a familiar move for Trump. He did it with his Giuliani's predecessor, Michael Cohen, who is serving a prison sentence for crimes where Trump was an unindicted co-conspirator. He tried to reinvent his own campaign surrogate and disgraced national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn—also likely headed for prison—as an Obama holdover. (President Obama fired Flynn and warned Trump not to let him back into government.) And he's already made tentative steps to separate himself from other Ukraine scandal figures: he hesitated to say whether Rudy Giuliani was still his lawyer, and insisted in the face of copious evidence to the contrary that he didn't know Giuliani's now-indicted associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.

Who cares?

  • This isn't something an innocent person would do in this situation.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted to illegal acts in court and then denied them on Twitter.

Today, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Saliann Scarpulla ordered Trump to pay $2,000,000 out of his own pocket as part of a settlement over crimes committed by his fraudulent charity. The State of New York had sued Trump for, among other things, spending the "charity's" money on his own business expenses, and illegally using it as a source of campaign funds. 

In her order, Scarpulla effectively barred Trump (and his three eldest children) from ever serving on the board of a charity again. Any charity he tried to join would have to hire a watchdog lawyer and undergo extra audits. According to legal experts, this is an unusually strict kind of order in such a case, reflecting the seriousness of Trump's misdeeds.

Virtually none of the money that the Trump Foundation controlled was donated by Trump family members. Trump also has a very, very long history of publicly promising charitable donations and then never actually making them.

Among other things, as part of the settlement, Trump admitted:
  • that he personally misused the charity's funds
  • that he ran the charity without an actual board of directors, which is illegal
  • that he failed to establish legally required rules and policies for it
  • that his negligence led to the charity becoming involved in further crimes (like allowing itself to be used as a personal piggy bank or campaign slush fund)
  • that he intentionally used it as an arm of his presidential campaign, which is illegal
  • that he used it to pay his private companies' legal bills
  • that he used its funds to buy a $10,000 portrait of himself, which he hung in his private Florida resort
  • that he used its funds to buy a $11,525 autographed football helmet for himself
It's important to note that Trump wasn't forced to make these stipulations. He could have allowed the case to go to trial, in which case the damages (and public embarrassment) would likely have been much higher. 

Instead, Trump seems to think that it's politically and legally safer to tell the truth to a judge and then lie to the American public about having done so. He tweeted a statement today essentially denying everything, claiming that the judge who ordered him to pay an extra $2,000,000 was taking his side, and insisting he was the real victim.

Why should I care?

  • It's wrong to steal charity money.
  • It's bad if the president has to admit to repeatedly breaking the law.
  • It's extremely bad that Trump may genuinely think he is the victim here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to have it both ways on the whistleblower.

The timeline of the Ukraine scandal is now fairly clear. On July 25, Trump called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and demanded that Ukraine launch an investigation into Joe Biden's son, who was on the board of a company thad did business there. Trump also wanted Ukraine to validate a conspiracy theory saying, in effect, that Ukraine had framed Russia for interference in the 2016 election. Trump had made clear that $400 million in military assistance was being delayed until Zelensky agreed to publicly announce these "investigations."

Immediately afterwards, staff from the diplomatic, intelligence, and military communities each raised internal alarms about what Trump had done. Some of these reached a member of the intelligence community, who followed the established procedures to inform Congress. After a failed attempt on the part of the Trump administration to prevent the whistleblower's report from reaching Congress, it was eventually released. This then formed the basis of the investigation that now looks likely to result in Trump's impeachment.

Trump has demanded the release of the whistleblower's name, which would defeat the purpose of the law that protects the identity of people who bring government wrongdoing to light. This appears to be an attempt to prevent other witnesses from coming forward, since the whistleblower and their attorneys have received death threats. Russian state media has identified a person they claim is the whistleblower, and that name was retweeted today by Trump's son Donald Jr., who works as a political surrogate for his father. 

But Trump Sr., who probably knows the actual identity of the whistleblower, has so far danced around speaking any names himself—including in attacks at a campaign rally today. This is because whistleblower protections were, at least until Trump took office, a cornerstone of conservative efforts to keep government in check. Many Republican senators—who will vote on whether Trump can stay in office at any impeachment trial—have expressed anger at Trump's attempts to undermine whistleblower protections.

Why does this matter?

  • Innocent people don't try to scare witnesses from coming forward.
  • The purpose of the United States government is to govern, not to serve as Donald Trump's personal legal defense team.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He warned Virginia voters that he figured they owed him for military spending in the state.

There are three major elections today: gubernatorial races in the deep-red states of Kentucky and Mississippi, and legislative races in Virginia that will determine control of both houses of that state's legislature. Trump held rallies in Mississippi and Kentucky, but shied away from active campaigning in Virginia, where his deep unpopularity meant he'd likely be a liability.

He did, however, target the state with an Election Day tweet first thing this morning:

There are two problems here. First, it wasn't Trump who "brought" defense contracts or military spending to Virginia. That's a function of legislative appropriations, where the contractors happen to be located, and the recommendations of the service branches themselves. Presidents can lobby Congress, but Trump himself has virtually no direct authority. 

The other problem is that even if Trump were telling the truth, there's no way to take it as anything other than a promise to punish Virginia with less "defense and other work" if Democrats win control. In another context, the demand that Virginia do Trump a political favor in exchange for promised military money would be called a quid pro quo.

It's not even the first time this week Trump has threatened a state whose political choices he doesn't like. 

As for Virginia voters, if they even noticed Trump's veiled threat, it doesn't seem to have made much of an impression. As of the time of this post, Democrats are projected to gain control of both chambers. (Also, Democrat Andy Beshear is the apparent winner of the Kentucky governor's race. Trump had made himself the focus of that race: he appeared in Lexington last night, capping earlier visits from Vice-President Pence and his son Donald Jr.)

Why should I care about this?

  • Collective punishment of entire regions for electing the "wrong" candidates is what happens in dictatorships and dystopian young adult novels, not a democracy.
  • It's wrong to take credit for decisions you didn't make.
  • Voters may not like being threatened.

Monday, November 4, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He plugged a book.

The fears that Trump projected yesterday came true today, with the release of the first two transcripts from Congressional depositions of witnesses in the impeachment inquiry. This evening, news broke that Lev Parnas—who is simultaneously on Trump's legal team and that of Russian mobster Dmitri Firtash, who helped prop up the former pro-Russian puppet government of Ukraine—had decided to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. And Trump lost yet another legal battle to keep his tax returns secret from criminal investigators in New York. (The federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Trump's claim that, because he is president, no law enforcement agency anywhere can even begin investigating crimes he may be associated with.)

But amidst all the chaos, Trump found time to plug his son Don Jr.'s new book.

Trump's tweet probably isn't technically illegal: conflict of interest laws don't apply to presidents, because impeachment is the remedy for presidents who behave inappropriately in office. (Any other federal employee would have been fired, at the very least, for using their office to promote a family member's book.) 

Trump has attacked former president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama for writing books after he left office, insinuating that there was some unspecified ethical problem with this. At the time, he was attempting to distract from his decision to award an eight-figure contract to himself to host the G7 at his failing Miami-area golf resort

Even with his father's endorsement, Trump Jr. will have stiff competition from other political books. The #1 and #2 books on Amazon this week are both about Trump. #1 is Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill, about the ways that wealthy sexual predators are protected by powerful allies. #2 is A Warning, by the anonymous Trump administration official who wrote a New York Times op-ed promising the American people that Trump's own staff were protecting the country from his worst impulses.

Who cares?

  • It's always wrong to use your public office for private gain, even if you can get away with it.
  • Accusing other people of doing what you are doing is either hypocrisy or psychological projection, neither of which are good things.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened to hold the government hostage if Congress tried to impeach him.

Last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he was concerned that Trump was preparing to shut down the government in order to obstruct the impeachment inquiry. The current funding bills expire on November 21, after which most of the federal government will be forced to shut down if Trump refuses to sign an extension.

While this would be an astonishing act of hostage-taking, Schumer had no firm evidence that Trump was planning to do this, and it would have been easy for Trump to simply deny it. 

Trump was asked point-blank today, in the context of a discussion about the impeachment proceedings, whether he had any such plans. He said that a shutdown was indeed a possibility.

Q Can you commit to no government shutdown? I mean, can you — for people that are concerned, what would you say?

TRUMP: It depends on — it depends on what the negotiation — I wouldn’t commit to anything. It depends on what the negotiation is.

Trump paid a political price last year when he shut down the government for an unprecedented 35 days last winter, but even in that case, it was at least in theory over a policy matter.

Why does this matter?

  • The federal government has more important things to do than protect Donald Trump from investigation.
  • Innocent people don't take hostages.
  • In a democracy, no one is above the law.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He warned his supporters not to believe their ears.

Republicans in Congress have been extremely reluctant to defend Trump on the facts of the Ukraine disaster, largely because he's already admitted to the main charges against him. But they've been more willing to attack the process by which the Democratic majority has gathered evidence against Trump. For example, some—like Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) have called for the release of the transcripts of depositions taken by various House committees. 

Massie is a member of the House Oversight Committee, and has been an eyewitness to the depositions. Trump retweeted Massie's call for the release of the transcripts today, but said not to believe what they said, and what Massie and dozens of other Republican members of Congress witnessed.

It's not the first time that Trump has warned people who he imagines are his supporters not to believe their own eyes and ears if something looks bad for him.

Why should I care about this?

  • Demanding that your subjects ignore things that they know to be true, in order to prove their loyalty to you, is what authoritarians do.
  • Not even the President of the United States can change reality just by pretending it didn't happen.
  • The only reason to try this is because Trump knows the depositions will incriminate him.

Friday, November 1, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied even more blatantly than usual about jobs numbers.

The U.S. economy added 128,000 jobs in October, according to preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This isn't terrible, but it's well below the number needed to keep up with population growth.

Trump promptly tweeted out that the United States had gained 303,000 jobs—an exaggeration of 237%.

Commentators tried to make sense of the numbers all morning, which don't add up to 303,000 even with the additional numbers (never a part of normal BLS figures) that Trump added on. 

Eventually, Trump advisor Larry Kudlow was brought out to offer one possible interpretation: that Trump was counting the actual numbers, plus jobs that the economy might have added if not for the GM strike, plus upward revisions from previous months, plus credit for 20,000 temporary census workers leaving their jobs. (There's no reason to believe they all found new jobs, though.)

This is a little like balancing your household budget by counting the money you earned, plus salary from a second job you were laid off from, plus a raise you think you might have gotten if you'd kept that job, plus salary from previous months.

On Wednesday, Trump boasted about a growth rate—1.9%—that he said was "deep trouble" when it happened during President Obama's term. By making up the 303,000 number, he may have been trying to avoid a similar gaffe today. Back in December 2012, when the economy added 158,000 jobs, he insisted that no fewer than 300,000 jobs per month were acceptable.

Why should I care about this?

  • Most people would get fired for making up fake numbers about their job performance.