Saturday, February 29, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave the Taliban something in exchange for nothing.

Today, Trump announced that the United States had entered into an agreement with the Taliban. The White House called a "decisive step to achieve negotiated peace in Afghanistan."

But as even the White House press release makes clear, there appears to have been little if any negotiation. Trump agreed to a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, essentially conceding the only leverage the United States has. In return, the Taliban conceded nothing more than a seven-day reduction in attacks against American and allied forces leading up to the agreement.

Ending the American presence in Afghanistan is legitimately popular, and something Trump campaigned on. But criticism of the agreement was swift and bipartisan, with prominent Republicans like Trump's staunchest ally in the Senate, Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and his former national security advisor John Bolton leading the charge. 

This is not the first time that Trump, who regards himself as a master dealmaker, has "negotiated" by giving away his leverage in advance. He's done it with China, North Korea, and the rest of the American government.

So what?

  • The safety and security of Americans and the United States' allies is more important than Donald Trump's political future.

Friday, February 28, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called the coronavirus a "hoax."

Trump told a campaign rally crowd today that the coronavirus threat was a Democratic "hoax," using the same word he prefers to explain away his election-year bargain with Russia and his attempt to blackmail Ukraine for help smearing a political rival.

The coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is not a hoax

Specifically, Trump said that the real threat (if any) from the rapidly spreading epidemic disease came from Democrats' immigration policies. He conjured up a picture of disease-ridden immigrants storming the US-Mexico border. 

It's not the first time Trump has tried to smear refugees as disease vectors. None of the current known cases in the U.S. had traveled to any part of Latin America recently, which remains the only part of the globe almost entirely untouched by COVID-19.

But as Trump spoke, another "community spread" victim of the virus was identified in Oregon. That means a patient who contracted the virus without going abroad themselves. The patient in question was diagnosed late because of bureaucratic delays in receiving working test kits

Trump disbanded the government's interagency task force on epidemic disease response in 2018. Both Trump and the person he put in charge of the government's response, Vice-President Mike Pence, spent the day at campaign events.

UPDATE, 2/29: Officials in Seattle announced the first death in the United States from the "hoax."

Why is this a problem?

  • Telling people that a potentially deadly disease is a "hoax" at the last possible moment when they can help stop its spread is insane.
  • Saying that nothing is your fault doesn't make problems go away.
  • The health and safety of the American people is more important than Donald Trump's political needs.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took swift and decisive action to prevent government scientists from talking about coronavirus.

Last night, Trump went on live TV to discuss the government's response to COVID-19. There were a number of bizarre twists in his remarks, which took nearly an hour. He repeatedly insisted there were only 15 cases in the United States, while there were at least 60 known. He contradicted the CDC, saying that the spread of the virus was not "inevitable." He announced Mike Pence would now lead a new task force, something that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar hadn't known until right before the announcement. (Pence was replaced in that role less than a day later.) He compared COVID-19, which kills about 3% of the people it infects, with the flu, which is less contagious and far less fatal. He attacked Nancy Pelosi's handling of the outbreak as "incompetent," apparently forgetting that handling the outbreak is his job. 

Perhaps most notably, Trump enthusiastically rambled about a proposed vaccine, something he'd mentioned earlier in the week as possibly being available within a few months. (He was confusing COVID-19 with Ebola.) This was what he said Wednesday:

TRUMP: We’re rapidly developing a vaccine, and they can speak to you — the professionals can speak to you about that.  The vaccine is coming along well.  And in speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop fairly rapidly, a vaccine for the future.

Minutes later, Dr. Anthony Fauci—a revered figure in the public health profession—was forced to contradict Trump on the timetable.

FAUCI: Just a very quick update on the countermeasure development in the form of vaccines and therapeutics.  I had told this audience at a recent press briefing that we have a number of vaccine candidates and one prototype, to give you a feel for the timeframe of a vaccine and what its impact might be now and in subsequent years — is that I told you we would have a vaccine that we would be putting into trials, to see if it’s safe and if it induces a response that you would predict would be protective in about three months. 
I think it’s going to be a little bit less than that.  It’s probably going to be closer to two months.  That would then take about three months to determine if it’s safe and immunogenic, which gives us six months.  Then you graduate from a trial — which is phase one — of 45 people, to a trial that involves hundreds if not low thousands of people to determine efficacy.  At the earliest, an efficacy trial would take an additional six to eight months. 
So although this is the fastest we have ever gone from a sequence of a virus to a trial, it still would not be any applicable to the epidemic unless we really wait about a year to a year and a half
Now, that means two things.  One, the answer to containing is public health measures.  We can’t rely on a vaccine over the next several months to a year. 

Today, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration is now demanding that public health officials clear all public statements about COVID-19 with Pence's office. Dr. Fauci confirmed that he had been ordered not to speak to the media without permission.

It was also reported today that the Trump administration has attempted to silence a whistleblower within the HHS department, who revealed that quarantined patients returning to the United States from China were met by untrained workers who were given no protective gear that would help limit the transmission of the virus. The employee who reported this says she was reassigned as punishment for reporting this within HHS.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The health and safety of the American public is more important than the president's political messaging.
  • There is no good reason to keep experts from sharing accurate and useful information during a crisis.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sued a newspaper for publishing an opinion piece.

Today, Trump's campaign sued the New York Times for publishing an opinion piece titled "The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo." The March 27, 2019 piece by Max Frankel argues that Trump—who famously begged Russia on live TV to hack into his opponents' e-mails—didn't need a "smoking gun" meeting with Putin or a secret backchannel to establish a corrupt bargain. 

Instead, Frankel argues, Trump made clear to the Putin regime up front just by campaigning that he was willing to "play ball" in exchange for illegal interference. Then, Frankel notes, Trump held up his end of the bargain: praising Putin and attacking the U.S. intelligence agencies who opposed Russia's interference, weakening sanctions, and generally doing Russia's bidding on the world stage.

Collusion — or a lack of it — turns out to have been the rhetorical trap that ensnared President Trump’s pursuers. There was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy because they had an overarching deal: the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy, starting with relief from the Obama administration’s burdensome economic sanctions. The Trumpites knew about the quid and held out the prospect of the quo.
...And true to the campaign minuet, despite great resistance in Congress, President Trump has watered down the sanctions and otherwise appeased Russian interests, even at the expense of America’s allies. Call it the art of the deal.

Trump is famous for threatening lawsuits when people say things about him he doesn't like—and just as famous for not following through. In this case, it's just as well: it is not illegal or grounds for a lawsuit for a newspaper to criticize the president.

Worse, for Trump, the truth is an absolute defense against a libel charge. It is true that Trump (to say nothing of most of his senior campaign staff) expressed interest in having Russia intervene during the 2016 election, and it is true that Trump weakened sanctions against the Putin regime and "otherwise appeased Russian interests."

Why should I care about this?

  • In a democracy, people can criticize their leaders without fear of punishment.
  • Courts of law aren't really the best place for a campaign stunt.
  • Presidents who don't want people to think they're the puppet of hostile foreign governments should probably try not to act like they are.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said to ignore the CDC, world health officials, his own Department of Health and Human Services when they warned about the threat posed by the coronavirus.

Trump was in India today, where he briefly brought up the subject of COVID-19, the dangerous epidemic disease that is spreading rapidly around the globe. Trump said it was "very well under control," a line he has been using for more than a month now, going back to when experts first started sounding the alarm.

He also said that researchers were very close to a vaccine. This is completely false. In reality, no one—including U.S. government experts at HHS and the CDC—expects a vaccine to be possible in less than a year. White House officials later admitted that Trump was confusing COVID-19 with Ebola, a totally different disease.

Still, Trump's acting Homeland Security secretary gamely repeated that vaccine lie at a Senate hearing. And Trump's economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, echoed Trump's assertion that all is well: "We have contained this. I won't say [it's] airtight, but it's pretty close to airtight."

Meanwhile, every other part of the U.S. government was stridently warning Americans today that a pandemic—meaning that the virus was likely to escape quarantines and become widely prevalent in populations around the world—was likely.

  • Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases: "Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in the United States. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses."
  • Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services: “This is an unprecedented, potentially severe health challenge globally.... We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus, and we need to be realistic about that."

Trump, who cut $15 billion from programs designed to prevent pandemics last year, has infuriated members of both parties in Congress with a paltry $2.5 billion budget request. He dismissed their complaints as partisan politics, but it was Republican senators who were the angriest today. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told Trump administration officials at a hearing today, “I think the American people are very concerned and should be. I’m concerned. It could be an existential threat to a lot of people in this country. This is not politics, this is doing our job for the American people. ...If you lowball something like this you’ll pay for it later. You’re not only dealing with the crisis you’re dealing with the perception of the American people."

Trump has shown a kind of concern about the crisis, though. According to the Washington Post tonight, Trump is "furious" that fears about COVID-19 are hurting the stock market. The Dow Jones has lost more than seven months of gains in the last two days. 

Why does this matter?

  • Americans' safety and health is more important than the president's approval ratings and stock portfolio.
  • This is not the sort of thing that a president can afford to be "confused" about.
  • Pretending a problem doesn't exist doesn't make it go away.

Monday, February 24, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pretended to have a potential worldwide pandemic "under control."

Trump was spooked today by the plummeting stock market. As many did, he blamed the recent surge in cases of the deadly coronavirus COVID-19, although the continued decline in American factories driven by Trump's trade war is also a factor.

Most Americans aren't directly affected by the stock market, something Trump doesn't seem to understand: he routinely takes credit for an audience's 401(k) portfolio, even when that audience—like Coast Guard members, for instance—doesn't get to participate in one. But Trump's wealthy supporters are affected by day-to-day market swings, and blaming any single bad day on a virus takes the pressure off him. 

Trump's excuse-making, then, would have been at least a forgivable sort of exaggeration. But he also claimed that he had the COVID-19 outbreak "under control" in the United States, which is a much more dangerous kind of lie.

For one thing, Trump himself doesn't control the rest of the world's response. Where he does have a say, he's already sided against the United States' experts at the CDC by allowing American cruise ship passengers known to be infected to break quarantine. Or rather, his desperately understaffed State Department did, apparently confused by the messages coming from the White House. Trump himself, a self-described "germophobe," was horrified when he belatedly found out.

The confusion arose in part because Trump had already disbanded the United States' pandemic response infrastructure. He shut down the National Security Council's global health security unit in 2018, and forced through $15 billion dollars in cuts to programs aimed at preventing disease outbreaks. Since $15 billion is still a small amount in the overall federal budget, the reason this infrastructure was targeted may have been simply that it was put in place by the Obama administration.

Trump's own hastily-assembled coronavirus team hasn't had to deal with a major outbreak of COVID-19 on American soil yet, which is probably just as well. The person in charge of it, Ken Cuccinelli—not a public health official but a former state-level Virginia politician best known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric—went begging to Twitter today for help accessing a Johns Hopkins University-produced map of the outbreak. This did not inspire confidence

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you haven't done.
  • Worldwide infectious disease outbreaks are one of those situations where a president has to be able to listen to people who actually know what they're doing.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to muddy the waters on Russian election interference even more.

Speaking to reporters today, Trump again claimed that he hadn't been told about Russian efforts to interfere in the 2020 election—an obvious lie that his own staff has already contradicted.

Q: Have you been briefed that Russia is trying to help Bernie Sanders?  And if so, what’s your message to Putin?  Are you comfortable with him intervening?
TRUMP:  Nobody said it.  I read where Russia is helping Bernie Sanders.  Nobody said it to me at all.  Nobody briefed me about that at all.  What they try and do is — certain people like certain people to have information.  No different than it’s been. 
But I have not been briefed on that at all.  Nobody told me about it.  They leaked it.  Adam Schiff and his group — they leaked it to the papers and — as usual.  They ought to investigate Adam Schiff for leaking that information.  He should not be leaking information out of intelligence.  They ought to investigate Adam Schiff.

The idea that Trump, who is President of the United States, hadn't been told about this is ridiculous. Not only did Trump fire his Director of National Intelligence last week for telling Congress about this ongoing attack, but intelligence officials have already confirmed to reporters that he was aware.

Nobody other than Trump has suggested that Rep. Schiff leaked the findings. For once, though, Trump himself isn't a suspect: his own tweets about the election match up exactly with what U.S. intelligence officials have found about the Russian disinformation campaign that Trump has been trying so hard to keep secret.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to lie to the American public, especially about things that are this important.
  • Presidents who don't want to look like hostile foreign governments are pulling on their strings should start by not doing and saying exactly what those foreign governments want.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He helped the Putin regime with its propaganda campaign.

Trump was openly rooting for another vote-counting debacle in the Nevada caucuses. It would not only make Democrats look bad, but it would also further the Putin regime's attempts to sow distrust in American elections.

Unfortunately for Trump, the votes in the Nevada caucuses have been counted without incident. But the winner, Bernie Sanders, did give Trump the chance to help a different Russian propaganda campaign, by "backing" Sanders as the Democratic nominee. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, the U.S. government has found that the Putin regime has been trying to sow discord between the Democratic candidates for the nomination by spreading rumors of a plot to keep Sanders from winning.

Trump claimed today that he hadn't known about Russia's involvement in the Democratic primary, although his own staff told the Post yesterday that he was aware. That makes sense, because Trump—who normally has trouble focusing on intelligence briefings—is intensely interested in this. He fired his acting Director of National Intelligence last week for even acknowledging the fact that Russia was working to help him get re-elected.

Trump has been copying the Putin regime strategy since before it was reported on, "helping" Sanders by claiming that the Democratic Party is "rigging" the election against him. He's tweeted over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again about "rigged" nominations in the last few weeks—at least nine times. 

That is exactly what Russian propagandists online have been saying.

Sanders's reaction was a blunt threat to Putin: stay out of American elections. Trump, for his part, has repeatedly and openly asked Russia—and Ukraine, and China, and any other country that might be interested—for help. 

Why does this matter?

  • The right thing to do when foreign countries try to undermine American democracy is not to help them.

Friday, February 21, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about the intelligence findings he fired his Director of National Intelligence for telling Congress.

Today, Trump tweeted this:

There's never really been any mystery about whether the Putin regime wants Trump to stay in power, or whether Trump was looking for that help. He famously begged Russia to hack his opponents on live TV during the 2016 election—a call for help that Russia answered the very same day. And he said he'd be open to further foreign interference on his behalf in an interview last year.

Putin himself openly admitted, while standing next to Trump at a joint press conference in Finland, that he directed his government to help Trump get elected. 

JEFF MASON (REUTERS): President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?  
PUTIN: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the US/Russia relationship back to normal.

Trump, bizarrely, still denies this—but the White House edited the question Putin was asked on the transcript to make it look less damning.

This week, Trump fired his acting Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Joseph Maguire, because his staff briefed the House Intelligence Committee on their knowledge that Russia was once again working to sow chaos and distrust in the American election system in order to have Trump re-elected. 

In other words, Trump is accusing his political opponents of exactly the thing Russia is doing to help him get elected—and in the process calling his own administration liars.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who can't or won't defend American democracy doesn't deserve the office.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He appointed a new intelligence chief because he didn't like what the old one was telling him.

Today, Trump officially announced that he was appointing Richard Grenell to the position of Acting Director of National Intelligence. Grenell is best known for nearly being expelled by Germany from his post as U.S. ambassador there for his political interference on behalf of right-wing groups there. 

Contrary to the announcement, Grenell has no experience whatsoever with intelligence matters. He does, however, have a long record of insisting that Russia's hacking and disinformation campaign during the 2016 election was normal and nothing to be too concerned about.

Grenell will replace another acting DNI, Joseph Maguire. The reason why is significant. According to reporting out today, Trump began to suspect Maguire of being "disloyal" because his office shared its findings on Russia's ongoing election interference with both parties in Congress. Trump somehow mistakenly believed that one of Maguire's subordinates released it only to Democrats, and even though this is not true, he apparently remained furious with Maguire.

UPDATE, 8:00 P.M. EDT: Subsequent reporting released later today make clear that Trump was furious that Maguire told Congress about Russia's attempts to interfere in the 2020 election on specifically on Trump's behalf, just as it did in 2016. Even Congressional Republicans were horrified by the briefing, which took place last Thursday.

Ironically, had Trump not replaced Maguire with someone he thought was less "disloyal," the upshot of the classified DNI briefing—the absolute certainty that Russia is once again actively interfering to help Trump—would not now be coming to light. 

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad to appoint people to important government jobs they're unqualified for just because they're political supporters.
  • The only reason, besides incompetence, that a president would ignore a foreign threat to the sanctity of American democracy is that he thought he'd lose in a fair election.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He purged yet another staff member who got in his way on Ukraine.

The Senate's final vote not to expel Trump from office was two weeks ago. Since then, Trump has retaliated by firing a number of witnesses who testified about his actions to Congress. These include former ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland and National Security Council Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Trump even fired Vindman's twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who also worked at the NSC but did not take part in the Ukraine investigation.

Today, Trump fired John Rood, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy he appointed in 2018. Rood did not testify in front of Congress, or publicly speak out about Trump's attempts to force Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election with a phony "investigation" into Joe Biden. 

But long before the scandal broke publicly, and just hours after Trump gave the order to withhold the desperately needed military aid to the vulnerable government of Ukraine, Rood privately warned Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in an e-mail that Trump was making a mistake and breaking the law. He wrote that "placing a hold on security assistance at this time would jeopardize this unique window of opportunity and undermine our defense priorities with a key partner in the strategic competition with Russia."

Rood was also the Defense Department official who certified that Ukraine was making progress in fighting corruption. This contradicted Trump's later after-the-fact defense that he was calling for a Ukrainian "investigation" into his political rival Joe Biden as an anti-corruption measure.

Rood's e-mail to Esper, along with others from Defense Department officials alarmed by Trump's apparently illegal action, only came to light at the very end of Trump's Senate trial. 

Why is this a problem?

  • The only reason for a president to fire someone for pointing out that an order is illegal is if the  president wants the freedom to give more illegal orders.
  • Purging anyone who shows the slightest hint of independent thought from the leader is what dictators do.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He normalized pardoning corruption.

Trump issued pardons or clemencies to eleven federal felons today. At least eight of them had personal connections to Trump or his fixer Rudy Giuliani, or had been accused of crimes that Trump himself is thought to have committed. They included:

  • Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted on corruption charges after being impeached and expelled from office for trying to sell then-President Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat. Blagojevich befriended Trump on the set of Trump's one bona fide business success, hosting the reality show The Apprentice.
    • Trump was impeached (but not removed from office) for trying to promote corruption in Ukraine.
  • Michael Milken, a bonds trader who shared the New York City limelight with Trump in the 1980s before being convicted of tax fraud and securities reporting violations. 
  • Bernard Kerik, the disgraced former NYPD chief under then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. Kerik, too, was convicted of tax evasion. Giuliani promoted Kerik, in spite of limited qualifications, because he had served on the mayor's security detail. He was briefly considered for the new post of Secretary of Homeland Security by the George W. Bush administration, but was forced to withdraw after he lied to officials about his ties to organized crime.
  • Ari Friedler, the CEO of an educational services company and (like many pardoned today) a prominent Trump donor, who was convicted of hacking into competitors' computers.
    • Trump—who also dabbled in "educational services" of a more illegal sort—benefited from the Russian government's hacking of the Democratic National Committee servers. Two dozen Russians remain under indictment.
  • Edward DeBartolo, Jr., was convicted of bribery—technically, failing to report a felony—when he paid $400,000 in hundred-dollar bills to Edwin Edwards, who was then the governor of Louisiana, for a gambling license. New England Patriots owner and Trump megadonor Robert Kraft personally lobbied him for the pardon, according to the White House's own statement.
    • Trump's attempts to force Ukraine to do him a political favor were characterized by those seeking his impeachment as the solicitation of a bribe, and may yet be prosecutable under the federal bribery statute.
  • Paul Pogue, a construction company owner who was convicted of tax fraud.
  • David Safavian, an official at the General Services Administration, who was convicted of perjury for lying about his connections to the infamous lobbyist-criminal Jack Abramoff. Abramoff grossly overbilled his clients for lobbying services, in some cases actively lobbying both sides of an issue, and bribed lawmakers in one of the biggest scandals in recent political history.
  • Angela Stanton, a reality TV personality convicted of crimes related to her participation in an auto theft ring.
    • Trump, whose devotion to TV as an art form is genuine and at times obsessive, seems to have a real soft spot for his fellow reality TV stars. He'd also likely approve of Stanton's first act after receiving her pardon, which was to plug her book on Twitter

Trump also spent the day renewing his attacks on the federal prosecutors who brought charges against his friend and political ally Roger Stone, the judge handling the case, and even the jurors who found Stone guilty. Trump bizarrely threatened to sue them himself—how, and for what, he didn't say. Today's pardons are widely seen as Trump preparing the way for a pardon of Stone himself, who is in a position to confirm large portions of the Mueller report on Trump's Russia ties. 

Why does this matter?

  • Ignoring crimes if they benefit the leader is what dictators do.
  • Promoting corruption, cheating on the taxes that other Americans pay, lying under oath, soliciting bribes, and undermining Americans' faith in elections are serious crimes no matter who does them.
  • Whether a convicted criminal is shown mercy shouldn't depend on whether they have political or financial connections to the president.

Monday, February 17, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got triggered by a pretty obvious fact about the economy.

Eleven years ago today, then-President Obama signed the American Reconstruction and Recovery Act—a fact that Obama noted in a tweet.

Trump responded angrily within hours. In the mini-tweetstorm that followed, he threw a lot of claims around that are arguably true but not really relevant—certain taxes being lower, the fed rate being higher—and at quite a few are basically lies where the truth makes him look bad. 

For example, it's a lie that Trump's administration has seen the "best jobs numbers." In reality, the American economy added the smallest number of new jobs last year than in any year since the recovery from the 2007-2008 recession began under President Obama. Job growth has slowed overall since Trump took office, in spite of his 2017 tax cuts flooding corporations and wealthy Americans with money, which mostly got used for stock buybacks.

Ironically, Trump could have had half a point in calling Obama's claim a "con job." Most economists believe presidents have very little direct control over the economy—unless, of course, they do something to dramatically negatively affect things, like starting a trade war. But to call Obama out for boasting about something he had relatively little control over would mean Trump couldn't boast about taking over for Obama's economy.

In virtually every measurable respect, where Trump hasn't directly damaged the economy—such as with a flood of farm bankruptcies and a recession in the manufacturing sector—Trump is simply being carried along by the same currents that Obama was. 

Unemployment rate, 2007-present
Dow Jones Industrial Average, 2008-present

There's nothing wrong with that, although for purely psychological reasons it may be impossible for Trump to acknowledge or even understand. 

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.
  • The American economy is way too important for a president to be confused or in denial about.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got stuck on his wall.

Shortly after taking office, Trump abandoned all pretense that Mexico would pay for his proposed border wall—although he did privately beg the Mexican president to go along with the charade. Since then, Trump has done everything in his power to seem like he is taking action on the wall, including siphoning money away from schools for the children of military servicemembers and shutting down the federal government for a record 35 days

Everything, that is, except build a wall. All of one mile of new fencing has been completed, and Trump's campaign is reportedly worried that his base will notice the lack of progress. That may be why, on a day otherwise taken up with campaign stops and a staffer's Trump-property wedding, Trump made time to tweet in defense of a recent fence-related debacle.

Trump actually has the basic facts more or less correct here—but then, so does the "Fake News." A section of replacement fence fell over in 37-mile-per-hour winds because its concrete base had not yet cured, as was reported on at the time.

What Trump didn't mention is that the wall did very little damage because it only fell a few feet, onto tall trees long ago planted along the Mexican side of the border. In the unlikely event that potential border-crossers in the large city of Mexicali could not find a place to buy a ladder or basic power tools, and if they lacked the climbing skills of an eight-year-old, those trees would have provided an easy route to the top of the wall.

Why is this a problem?

  • Just because something makes the president look bad doesn't mean it's "fake."

Saturday, February 15, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He didn't read very carefully.

Trump is spending this evening at the home of an actual billionaire for a $580,600-a-plate fundraiser, but the rest of his day was spent as usual: golf and Twitter. This morning, Trump quoted from a recent New York Times article.

Trump's history makes it easy to understand why he'd be flattered by the word "king." But either he didn't understand the article he was quoting, or he assumes his supporters won't be able to. It is not particularly flattering, starting with the headline that declares him "stained in history."

The article quotes a number of Republicans admitting that Trump really had done the things he was accused of by his impeachment articles, and warning that he would only be encouraged to worse behavior:

• • •
• • •

Even the passage Trump is quoting isn't very complimentary: while Trump is certainly aggrieved and resentful, the idea that the most powerful person on the planet is being "persecuted" doesn't seem to be getting much traction.

Who cares?

Friday, February 14, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He fantasized about a non-existent version of the border wall he hasn't built in front of the people who aren't patrolling it.

Trump ended the day as he usually does on Fridays in winter, at his luxury resort in Florida. But first, he gave a speech to employees of the Customs and Border Protection agency. In it, he made the following statements about the border wall along the US-Mexico border, as he imagines it:
  • "Right now we have 122 miles of wall that's been built."
This is false. For most of Trump's presidency, zero miles of new border fencing had been constructed. But as of last month, one mile of new fencing has been put up.

    • "The panel on top -- just in case people want to know, because I would have loved it without the panel -- but actually, it's called an “anti-climb panel.” It makes it very tough to climb over the top."
    Eight-year-old children have easily climbed replica fences that include the "anti-climb" panel.

    • "So, in fact, we've had to bring in the fire departments and things to get people down. They've climbed the wall, sometimes with drugs on their back -- oftentimes. And they’re great climbers, but they couldn't get over the top anti-climb panel."
    "Great climbers," or at least recreational climbers, have also tested the fence and its panel and gone over in a minute or less—including while juggling.

    • "Here's another shot of a section -- the same section, actually, that's more advanced. And that's the way they put it up. They set it very deep into foundations and concrete. And it's steel with concrete in between. And if you've ever seen it, the bars are steel; they’re hollow. And they pour concrete inside and then put rebar in. So they have the rebar first; rebar is the steel. And they put it inside and then they pour the concrete."
    Concrete and steel are tough, but as smugglers proved almost immediately, hardware stores sell handheld battery-powered tools that will cut through them in minutes.

    • "We're now going to probably bring it in. We're going to spray-paint it after -- after it’s up. It gets spray-painted black. The black makes it extraordinarily hot, especially in areas along the Mexican border. It’s not known for cold weather. It’s known for quite hot weather. You don't have too much snow in this area, right?"
    No, but large parts of the border area are known for seasonal rains and flash flooding, which is why fencing in those areas have floodgates that must be left open for months on end.

    • "It's been almost 100 percent effective in the areas that it's been built."

    Trump closed his depiction of the wall by instructing his audience of government employees, who presumably knew most of what he'd said was false, to "say 'Thank you, Mr. President."

    Trump didn't talk about the cost of the wall, except to reference "hundreds of millions of dollars." In reality, Trump declared a national emergency to allow him to take billions of dollars, including $3.8 billion this year alone, from the U.S. military budget. Last year's cuts came from a wide variety of programs including a number of base schools attended by children of servicemembers. This year, some of the money is being taken from anti-drug operations.

    Trump ran on a promise that Mexico, not American taxpayers or the national defense budget, would pay for the fence he has built one extra mile of. 

    So what?

    • It's wrong to take credit for things you haven't done.
    • Presidents are supposed to care about whether their policies actually work.
    • Voters who heard Trump say countless times that Mexico would pay for the wall might have thought Trump meant would actually build a wall and that Mexico would pay for it.

    Thursday, February 13, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?

    He tried to shake down public officials, in public.

    Last week, Trump froze the state of New York out from participation in the federal Global Entry program. Officially, the move was intended to punish New York for refusing to share its DMV database with the Customs and Border Patrol agency and for passing laws to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers' licenses. (There is no legal requirement that New York share its database, and noncitizens cannot use drivers' licenses as proof of citizenship.) 

    But today, just before Trump met New York governor Andrew Cuomo, he offered a quid pro quo on Twitter: call off your investigations and lawsuits against me, and I'll stop punishing New York citizens.

    It's illegal for a federal official to take government actions based whether or not they receive favorable treatment. It's also illegal to bribe or extort a public official.

    Trump is extremely vulnerable to prosecution by New York state officials, since most of his known or suspected crimes—including his documented tax evasion, his Trump University scam, his illegal fake charity, and his use of his New York-based businesses as an illegal campaign pass-through to conceal hush money paid to his mistresses—took place in their jurisdiction.

    "Fredo" is a reference to Fredo Corleone, a bumbling character in the Godfather movies. Gov. Cuomo's brother Chris Cuomo, a CNN host, took offense at being called that name, much to Trump's delight. Trump has spent much of his life trying to impress real-life organized crime figures. He frequently deploys mob-movie language in real-life. Trump himself has been compared to Fredo—who, like Trump, likes to brag about how smart he thinks he is—many times.

    Why should I care about this?

    • Illegal and corrupt actions done in broad daylight are still illegal and corrupt.
    • Presidents with so much criminal exposure that they need to do things like this should probably resign to focus on their legal defense.
    • This is why mob bosses make bad role models.
    • No matter how hard he tries to be, the president is not above the law.

    Wednesday, February 12, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?

    He promised to use the power of the state to protect his friends and punish his enemies.

    Trump spoke to reporters briefly during a visit by the President of Ecuador. Most of the questions were about Trump's actions over the last few days to protect Roger Stone, his political backer. Stone was convicted of perjury and witness tampering in an attempt to shield Trump from the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

    In the course of about ten minutes, Trump attacked all of the following people:
    • Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his "people," all of whom were drawn from Trump's own Justice Department
    • former FBI director James Comey, who Trump fired in an attempt to prevent further investigation into his ties to Russia's election interference
    • serving and former FBI agents who took part in the government's attempt to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election on Trump's behalf
    • the four prosecutors on the Roger Stone case, who resigned in protest after they followed sentencing guidelines and were overruled by Attorney General William Barr.
    In the last few days, Trump has also made implied threats against the judge handling the Stone sentencing, and mused openly about forcing the Army to discipline Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for testifying before Congress about the Ukraine scandal.

    Trump has essentially admitted in his recent tweets that Barr was acting on his direct orders by protecting Stone. His own advisors have told reporters that Trump is alternating between rage over his impeachment and exultation at having it behind him, and feels empowered to do anything necessary to prevent further scrutiny of his actions. Federal prosecutors still on the job are telling reporters that they fear more direct political interference of this type.

    Trump is also very likely afraid: Stone is the fifth person from Trump's innermost circle either in or facing prison time with direct knowledge of his dealings with Russia during the 2016 election. (Michael Flynn is awaiting sentencing, and Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, and Paul Manafort are all in prison.) 

    Why does this matter?

    • Doing corrupt acts out in the open is just as bad as doing them in secret.
    • Americans losing faith in the fairness of their courts and the integrity of their elections is what America's enemies want.
    • Using the power of the government to punish people who oppose you is pretty much the definition of authoritarianism.
    • When the president's own closest allies are telling people that he's having mood swings and lashing out at anyone he thinks is an enemy, it's a bad situation.

    Tuesday, February 11, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?

    He pretty much declared the DOJ his personal police force.

    Just before 2 A.M. this morning, Trump was up rage-tweeting about the news that federal prosecutors, following sentencing guidelines, were recommending a prison sentence of seven to nine years for his political ally Roger Stone. 

    Trump has good reason to be concerned: Stone could do enormous damage if he decided to start cooperating with prosecutors. (If Trump pardoned Stone, then Stone would lose his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and could be forced to testify against Trump.) Stone was convicted last year of lying to Congress and threatening a witness in his attempt to shield Trump from the Mueller investigation.

    That tweet took on enormous significance as the day wore on. The sequence of events has gone as follows:

    Around noon, the DOJ announced that it was planning on making the recommended sentence much more lenient. It is extremely rare for federal prosecutors to depart from those guidelines, unless the convicted person has helped with other investigations.

    Then, over the course of the afternoon, every single one of the four prosecutors who made the original recommendation quit the case, and one resigned from the DOJ entirely, apparently in protest.

    Then, Trump abruptly withdrew his nomination of Jessie Liu to join the Treasury Department. Liu was the U.S. Attorney who oversaw the Stone case. She was scheduled to appear at a Senate confirmation hearing for the new position, where she would undoubtedly have been forced to talk about Trump's actions today.

    Trump himself insisted that he hadn't done anything to cause the change—but that he would have been legally justified in doing so. (Trump has used this formulation—I didn't do it but I could have—on everything from the Ukraine scandal to conspiring with the Russian government on the 2016 election.)

    This evening, NBC reported that Trump's hand-picked Attorney General, William Barr, has assumed personal control over all Justice Department matters that affect Trump personally, including the Stone sentencing. A skeleton crew of new prosecutors have already submitted a new, much more lenient sentencing recommendation today. In the past week, Barr has also made himself the final authority on approving investigations into election tampering, and set up a special reporting conduit for anything Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani wants to have "investigated."

    Stone is one of a number of Trump supporters who are now in prison or awaiting sentencing, including his campaign chairs Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Trump is tweeting about them tonight.

    Why does this matter?

    • You either have a fair and independent justice system, or one that tolerates crime when it benefits the president.
    • The president is not above the law.
    • It's bad if a president's actions force public servants to choose between his demands and their consciences.

    Monday, February 10, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?

    Broke his debt promise, again.

    Trump officially released his administration's budget plan today. By its own extremely optimistic projections, which include "savings" by not declaring future wars, it will increase the budget deficit by $3.4 trillion over the next three years. This is on top of the $3 trillion Trump has already added to the national debt. 

    Budget deficits aren't inherently bad, but they're politically unpopular. Trump campaigned in 2016 on a pledge to not only not borrow money to fund the government, but to pay down the existing deficit in eight years. This isn't even mathematically possible, and it's not clear if anyone took him seriously, but Trump clearly expected people to believe him. As then-candidate Trump told the Washington Post in 2016:

    TRUMP: We’re a debtor nation. We’ve got to get rid of — I talked about bubble. We’ve got to get rid of the $19 trillion in debt. 
    WP: How long would that take? 
    TRUMP:  I think I could do it fairly quickly, because of the fact the numbers... 
    WP: What’s fairly quickly? 
    TRUMP:  Well, I would say over a period of eight years.

    Trump's proposal was essentially laughed out of the room by Senate Republicans. Framing it as a kindness to Trump, to spare him the "animosity" that a public examination of the proposal would generate, Senate Finance Committee chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) told reporters he wouldn't even hold a hearing on it. "I want to encourage people... not to waste any time searching out the president's budget cuts," he said.

    Why does this matter?

    • Politicians who make campaign promises should at least pretend to try to keep them.

    Sunday, February 9, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?

    He said he'd get around to proving his innocence eventually.

    While Trump ranted at Republicans and Democrats alike on Twitter, he sent his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to a Sunday morning cable show to deliver an interesting message: that he'd provide evidence he didn't try to strike a corrupt bargain with Ukraine "in the next couple of months."

    GIULIANI: The acquittal, of course, was wonderful, but it never should have happened. I mean, he didn't do anything wrong. 
    And I think over the — over the next couple of months, you're going to see that what he did was perfectly justifiable.  
    The amount of crimes that Democrats committed in Ukraine are astounding. And when you say investigate and call Hunter Biden, I mean, Joe — Joe Biden was the guy who did the bribe.
    Giuliani did not elaborate on "the bribe." It's not the first time Giuliani has teased shocking revelations that would help Trump politically, although none have ever actually panned out.

    As he did so, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham announced that the Justice Department had "created a process" so that Giuliani—Trump's private fixer, not a government employee—could report directly on his "findings."

    There is, without a doubt, a great deal of evidence that has never been released about Trump's attempts to force Ukraine to "investigate" his political rival Joe Biden. This includes the actual transcript of the final call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelinsky. (Trump has released only a carefully edited version, and even that was enough to get him impeached.)

    But so far, the only "evidence" Giuliani has even hinted at appears to be that Viktor Shokin might be willing to implicate the Biden family in something. Shokin is the Ukrainian prosecutor, almost universally regarded as corrupt himself, who was forced out of office after strong bipartisan pressure from the United States and European nations.

    In other words, it looks like Trump has authorized the United States government to "investigate" Biden, using his personal fixer as the conduit for "evidence," after his attempt to get Ukraine to do the same thing blew up in his face.

    Giuliani did not explain why Trump could not provide evidence of his innocence now, or during the Senate trial.

    Why should I care about this?

    • No one ever suppresses evidence of their own innocence.
    • Launching phony "investigations" of your political opponents is an abuse of power, and it's what dictators do.

    Saturday, February 8, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?

    He added some slander to his retaliation against a serving military officer.

    On the third full day since the Senate voted not to expel him from office for the Ukraine scandal and his attempted cover-up, Trump was still raging at the people whose testimony sealed his impeachment. After firing Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council yesterday, Trump followed up with this on Twitter today:

    Fake News @CNN & MSDNC keep talking about “Lt. Col.” Vindman as though I should think only how wonderful he was. Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!) but, he was very insubordinate, reported contents of my “perfect” calls incorrectly, &.......was given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information. In other words, “OUT”.

    In reality, the only evidence of a "report" by Vindman's superiors about his performance came from Dr. Fiona Hill, who also testified against Trump. As Vindman testified, Hill characterized him as being in the "top 1%" of military officers she had worked with, and testified to his "excellent judgment."

    Trump, who avoided military service in Vietnam with four student exemptions and a medical excuse his father apparently paid for, may not know the technical definition of "insubordination." It is a serious crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But even if Trump's feelings were hurt by what Vindman said about him, it's not insubordination. And even if it were, when a servicemember is acting to "discharge a lawful duty"—like complying with a subpoena to give truthful testimony to Congress—he or she is exempt from insubordination charges.

    Trump has never released the actual transcripts of the call he made to the Ukrainian president, but only a highly edited summary. Vindman testified that these left out damning details like Trump's specific demands for an investigation into the company that Hunter Biden worked for.

    So what?

    • If there were any legitimate military reasons for Trump to punish Vindman, he would have mentioned them.
    • It's not a great idea for the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military to mock soldiers' ranks or service.

    Friday, February 7, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?


    Trump fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq War veteran and intelligence analyst, from his job at the Ukraine desk of the National Security Council, today. Vindman was escorted out of the White House less than 48 hours after the Senate voted not to expel Trump from office.

    Trump has been openly seething at Vindman since he obeyed a Congressional subpoena to testify about what he observed of Trump's efforts to force the government of Ukraine to announce a fake corruption investigation of the Biden family. Vindman's appearance on television in uniform—standard procedure for military officers testifying before Congress—especially upset the image-conscious Trump, who avoided service in Vietnam.

    Specifically, Vindman told Congress that the partial summary—not a transcript—of the key July 25 phone call left out Trump's specific demands that Ukraine "investigate" Hunter Biden and the company he worked for. (Trump has never released the actual transcript, which remains secret.) 

    Vindman also identified himself as one of the many actual witnesses to the call who reported their alarm at Trump's actions. He said that after he told NSC officials about his concerns, he was ordered to keep silent about the call, records of which were then hidden on secret servers.

    A White House spokesperson tried to justify Trump's actions by saying that he was coping emotionally with "just how horribly he was treated, and [he felt] that maybe people should pay for that." Another senior advisor to Trump, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Trump was sending a message that siding against him wouldn't be tolerated—even if it took the form of truthful testimony in response to a lawful subpoena.

    Alexander Vindman's twin brother, Lt. Col Yevgeny Vindman, also works at the NSC and was also fired today. Yevgeny is a staff lawyer and was not involved in the impeachment process. The White House did not attempt to explain his firing.

    Trump also apparently fired the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. A million-dollar donor to Trump's mysterious inaugural fund, Sondland testified against Trump only reluctantly, and only after evidence of his own involvement in the Ukrainian scheme came to light. That led to this statement:
    I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a "quid pro quo?" As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.
    Retaliating against witnesses by taking action against their employment is a federal crime.

    Why does this matter?

    • Taking revenge on witnesses and their families is what mob bosses do.
    • It is un-American to punish public servants for telling the truth.

    Thursday, February 6, 2020

    What did Donald Trump do today?

    He stayed mad.

    Trump's post-trial emotional roller coaster continued today. He started the day by using a prayer breakfast as an opportunity lash out at his political opponents, once again attacking Nancy Pelosi for praying for him. (As more observant Christians than Trump know, Jesus commands his followers to pray for their enemies.)

    Later, standing in front of an audience of hand-picked political supporters, a visibly agitated Trump addressed the country for over an hour on the subject of his impeachment.

    During that time, he described Americans who supported his impeachment this way:

    • "very unfair"
    • "evil"
    • "corrupt"
    • "leakers and liars"
    • "a disgrace"
    • "bad people"
    • "bullshit"
    • "nasty"
    • "tremendous corruption"
    • "very bad and evil people"
    • "horrible, dirty cops"
    • "crooked"
    • "not fair"
    • "saying the most horrendous things about me"
    • "totally incorrect"
    • "failed so badly"
    • "lousy politicians"
    • "vicious and mean"
    • "horrible"
    • "terrible"
    • "very ugly"
    • "non-people"
    • "the bad ones"
    • "they were going to try and overthrow the government"
    • "sleazebag"
    • "the crookedest, most dishonest, dirtiest people I've ever seen"
    • "scum"
    • "highly partisan"
    • "in my opinion, it's almost like they want to destroy our country"
    • "some very evil and sick people"

    According to one of the last polls taken before the Senate voted not to expel Trump from office, 56% of Americans think Trump was guilty of abuse of power. That number includes 67% of independents, and even 18% of Republicans.

    60% of Americans wanted Trump either expelled from office or censured—41% for expulsion, and 19% for censure. Only 31% of Americans thought Trump should be neither expelled nor censured.

    Why is this a bad thing?

    • Attacking anyone and everyone who isn't personally loyal to the leader is what dictators do.
    • Presidents who can't control their impulses can't do the job.