Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Reading

His Greatest Weakness — John Stoehr in the Washington Monthly.

I teach a class at Yale on the classic books of presidential campaign reporting, books like Teddy White’s The Making of the President. As you can imagine, my students are exceedingly bright, highly informed, and savvy. But they don’t know much.

By that, I mean they don’t know much about how normal people think about politics. I know that I’m suggesting that my students aren’t normal. They are normal in the sense that they are smart young adults with all the concerns smart young adults have. But they aren’t normal in another sense. They are elite.

To get to Yale, they have gone through years of indoctrination making them suitable to Yale. I don’t mean brainwashing. I mean they know deep in their bones that they are required to make arguments based on facts and come to conclusions through reasoning. They must master and pledge allegiance to logic.

As you can imagine, my students find Trump supporters confounding. This is not an ideological reaction: I have liberal, libertarian, civic republican, and conservative students. They have been shocked by Trump’s election, because to them he is so transparently unfit to lead anything, much less the US government.

They know he’s unfit, because they know something about politics and policy, and knowing something about politics and policy means they know when the president is demonstrating some kind of allergy to falsifiable objective reality independent of his insecure ego.

My students, in other words, privilege knowledge, because to them, knowledge is how they will command and control their destinies.

What they don’t know is that most people don’t know much about politics, don’t know much about policy, don’t care to understand the details that make up the foundation any position, and don’t think they need to care about understanding those details, because knowledge is not what they trust most in the world.

What they trust is character.

Before I continue, let me say one more thing. After I strive mightily to get my students to understand how normal people perceive politics, they often come to an unfair conclusion—that the people who support Donald Trump are racist and stupid.

That’s probably true for a good number of the president’s supporters, but it’s certainly not true for a great many more. The reason is simple: politics is about conflict. Most people, whether normal or elite, really try to avoid conflict. It’s okay to not know much about politics, and not to care to know, because people just want to get along. No one should be faulted for that.

Besides, life is hard. There are so many things to worry about—jobs, kids, finances, health, so very many things—that Washington politics is the last thing most want to think about. I often tell my students that most people have something better to do.

The reason I’m going into the weeds like this is to get readers of the Washington Monthly and anyone who believes Donald Trump is a singular threat to democracy to understand how and why his supporters very much like what the president is doing, even though it makes no sense to the readers of the Washington Monthly and anyone who believes Donald Trump is a singular threat to democracy. In understanding how and why these people very much like what the president is doing, we can devise an effective strategy for the battles ahead.

There’s a reason why Donald Trump is reportedly fond of watching himself on TV with the sound turned off. It’s not only because he’s a narcissist, though narcissism surely plays a part. It’s also because he is trying to experience what most normal people experience when they watch the president on TV, and that means a majority of people since most still get their news about what’s happening in Washington from TV, despite the ubiquity of digital. Remember, they don’t know enough to know he’s lying. What they can see is Trump’s performance: the expressions of strength, the wit and charm (which are evident), and the braggadocio.

[Thursday]’s press conference was in fact a hot mess, but imagine watching it with the sound turned off so you don’t know what the president is saying. Imagine watching the president’s gestures, his expression, his sparring with the press. That’s probably a close approximation of what his supporters experience when they watch the president on TV. That’s the extent to which most people assess the president’s policy views. It is style’s mastery over substance.

Which brings me back to character. That is something people can judge, because they trust their ability to size up the president. That trust, of course, is misplaced, because Trump is in fact a serial liar, but remember, most people, especially Trump supporters, don’t know enough about politics or care enough to know much about politics, so they don’t know he’s lying.

What they can see is how he looks. And this is key.

I really want you to understand the connection between Trump’s appearance and the trust his supporters place in him. What the Democratic opposition needs to do is undermine that trust. Part of doing that is pointing out every time Trump lies. (The Washington press corps is doing that.) But the opposition must also attack the president where it really hurts him—by appealing to logic and reason, but not only logic and reason. The opposition must wound the president by focusing on his weakness.

Fact is, the president is weak. We saw that yesterday. When confronted with the fact that he did not win a bigger electoral victory than anyone since Reagan, he immediately backed down, spluttering something about how he had been given that information so it’s not his fault. Some have implied he will never accept the truth, so don’t bother. But that’s an argument of logic and reason. What happened in that brief exchange needs to happen a million times over in order to reveal that the president is weak and that in that weakness his supporters have misplaced their trust.

So, say it with me: The president is weak.

Say it again. Over and over. Then when the president really does demonstrate weakness, as he did when confronted by the reporter about his fake electoral landslide, the president will have substantiated the opposition’s charge of weakness.

That will hurt.

Trump ran on strength. Only he was strong enough to solve our problems. And people believed him. They still believe him. But if the opposition can establish an image of weakness, it will come close to breaking trust in him.

Who Watches the Watchers? — Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times.

Whom do federal immigration agents despise more: former President Barack Obama, or the immigrants whose lives are in their hands?

That uncomfortable question came to mind as I read articles over the past week of the growing numbers of raids, roundups, the knocks on the door, the flooding of “target-rich environments,” a phrase an anonymous immigration official used in speaking to The Washington Post. What’s a target-rich environment? “Big cities,” the official explained, “tend to have a lot of illegal immigrants.”

Clearly, with President Trump’s executive orders having expanded the category of immigrants deemed worth pursuing and deporting, the gloves are off. There’s been plenty of news coverage of this development, but few reminders of the context in which the pursuers have been freed from previous restraints.

So it’s worth noting that the union representing some 5,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents actually endorsed Mr. Trump in September, the first time the union endorsed a candidate for president. In an inflammatory statement posted on the Trump campaign’s website, Chris Crane, president of the union, the National ICE Council, complained that under President Obama, “our officers are prevented from enforcing the most basic immigration laws.” The statement went on to say that while Mr. Trump had pledged in a meeting to “support ICE officers, our nation’s laws and our members,” Hillary Clinton’s immigration plan was “total amnesty plus open borders.”

That everything in that statement except for the reference to Mr. Trump was untrue is not the point. (Far from failing to enforce the law, the Obama administration deported more than 400,000 unauthorized immigrants a year, and Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival endorsed neither total amnesty nor open borders.) Rather, the statement is evidence of how openly these law enforcement officers have been chafing at the bit to do their jobs as they please.

And chafing for a long time: back in 2012, Mr. Crane was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s deferral of deportation for immigrants brought to the United States as children. The claim was that the program put agents in a position of either failing to enforce immigration law as written or suffering reprisals at work for not adhering to the new policy. The plaintiffs were represented by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state. An anti-immigration activist who joined the Trump transition team as an adviser on immigration, Mr. Kobach is an originator of the false “massive voter fraud” rationale for voter ID requirements and has exported anti-immigrant legislation to states around the country, most notably Arizona.

A federal district judge in Dallas dismissed Mr. Crane’s lawsuit against the deferral program. Mr. Crane also showed his disdain for President Obama by refusing to allow members to participate in a course aimed at training immigration agents in carrying out the Obama administration’s policy that gave priority to deporting high-risk offenders rather than immigrants with clean records and deep roots in the country. Last month, after President Trump issued his immigration orders, Mr. Crane’s union and the union representing Border Patrol officers issued a joint statement declaring that, in case anyone asked, “morale among our agents and officers has increased exponentially” as a result of the president’s promised actions.

Why does any of this matter — aside from the irony of these public employee unions having achieved pride of place in the conservative firmament, while Republican governors and legislatures are moving quickly to disable public employee unions they find troublesome?

It matters because along with entrusting our immigration enforcers to keep us safe, in the president’s often-tweeted phrase, we also entrust them with the responsibility of treating unauthorized immigrants not as prey but as human beings entitled to dignity, even if only minimally to due process.

Not everyone shares that view. I get that, and I’m reminded of it every time I write about immigration. Reader comments on articles about immigration, including the gripping one last week about Guadalupe García de Rayos, the Phoenix woman and mother of two American children who was abruptly deported when she dutifully showed up for her routine check-in at the local ICE office, run to “if she wasn’t illegal in the first place, she wouldn’t have been deported.”

Right. I’d like to think we’re better than that. A month ago, we were.

In what may be an early warning of what’s to come, last Friday immigration agents in Seattle took a 23-year-old Mexican into custody despite his paperwork proving that he had been granted work authorization under the deferred-deportation program, which for now remains in effect.

“It doesn’t matter, because you weren’t born in this country,” one of the immigration enforcement agents told the man, Daniel Ramírez Medina, according to a petition for habeas corpus filed on his behalf in Federal District Court in Seattle. Mr. Ramírez was brought to this country at age 7 and twice qualified for the deferral program, most recently with a renewal last May. On Tuesday, a federal magistrate judge gave the federal government until Thursday to explain the basis for the detention.

This column is usually about the Supreme Court, and this one is, too. Next Tuesday, the justices’ first day back from a monthlong recess, the court will hear an important case on whether a Border Patrol officer can be required to pay damages to the family of a Mexican boy he killed with a bullet fired across the dry bed of the Rio Grande, the international border that separated the two by only yards. The facts of the case, Hernández v. Mesa, sound highly unusual, but they aren’t; there have been 10 cross-border shootings in recent years in addition to several dozen others along the border.

This case raises important questions about the extraterritorial reach both of the Constitution and the damages remedy that is available to United States citizens whose constitutional rights are violated on American soil by a federal official. Sergio Hernández, the unarmed 15-year-old killed seven years ago by the Border Patrol agent, Jesus Mesa Jr., was not an American citizen, and the bullet reached him in Mexico. He and his friends had been playing in a dry culvert, daring each other to run up the opposite bank and touch the barbed-wire fence on the American side. The F.B.I. report initially claimed that the boys were throwing rocks at the agent, but cellphone videos showed Sergio hiding under a railroad trestle in the last minutes of his life. He was shot when he stuck his head out from his hiding place.

The Justice Department investigated but declined to prosecute Mr. Mesa. Mexico charged the agent with murder, but the United States refused to extradite him. Sergio’s parents sued for damages, but lost when the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that even if Sergio had constitutional rights that were violated by the shooting, the existence of any right was sufficiently unclear as to entitle Mr. Mesa to “qualified immunity,” a legal shield extended to official defendants when the relevant law is deemed uncertain. Because the case has never gone to trial, the eventual Supreme Court decision won’t resolve the conflicting accounts or establish the motive for the agent’s fatal shot. But presumably the law will be clear, one way or another, the next time such an incident occurs.

On the chaotic night last month when Mr. Trump fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, for refusing to defend his immigration order, he made another personnel change that got less attention. Without explanation, he replaced the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Daniel Ragsdale, with Thomas Homan, a career employee who had been serving in the agency’s top enforcement position. Last April, when Mr. Homan received the government’s highest Civil Service award, a profile in The Washington Post began: “Thomas Homan deports people. And he’s really good at it.”

In the Post profile, Mr. Homan declined to answer questions about policy, or whether he might be supporting Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. “Sorry, I can’t say what I think,” he told the reporter.

The Roman poet Juvenal asked: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians? We need to ask that question now, urgently. I fear the answer.

 Why Thornton Wilder Matters — Laura Collins Hughes on the revival of “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

Thornton Wilder

When Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” had its Broadway premiere in 1942, directed by Elia Kazan and starring a dream cast led by Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March, the critic Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it “one of the wisest and friskiest comedies written in a long time.” When it returned in 1955, with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin, Mr. Atkinson deemed it simply “perfect.”

After that, though, the play’s fortunes fell. On its third and most recent Broadway outing, José Quintero’s 1975 revival starring Elizabeth Ashley, the Times critic Mel Gussow dismissed it as “simplistic.” Boundary-breaking in its day, it has long been scarce on professional stages.

So Arin Arbus’s new Off Broadway production for Theater for a New Audience, in previews at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is a rare chance for re-evaluation. With a cast of 35 (!) and original music by César Alvarez (“Futurity”), it follows the members of the Antrobus family of suburban New Jersey through the ice age in Act I (their pets are a mammoth and a dinosaur; freezing refugees clamor at the door) and into a great flood in Act II. The third act opens amid the ruins of a war. With each calamity, the Antrobuses have to figure out whether and how to survive.

Jeffrey Horowitz, the founding artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, said he didn’t choose the play with topicality in mind. But Wilder had his own suspicions about when it resounds most powerfully. As he explained in the 1950s, in a preface to his collection “Three Plays”: “It was written on the eve of our entrance into the war and under strong emotion, and I think it mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.”

Several admirers of the play spoke recently about why “The Skin of Our Teeth” endures, what makes it problematic and why this could be a ripe time for its resurgence. Here are edited excerpts from those interviews.

Carey Perloff

The artistic director of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco directed “The Skin of Our Teeth” at Classic Stage Company in New York in 1986 — a production that, according to Mr. Gussow’s review in The Times, included the refugees in Act I singing a chorus of “Tomorrow,” from “Annie.” Ms. Perloff laughed as she said she didn’t recall much about that long-ago detail, but she was very clear on the play’s current resonance.

All of us who are running theaters now are in this strange position of thinking: What is the appropriate response to the chaos and uncertainty of this moment, and how do you think about that theatrically? It was very prescient of Jeffrey to program this.

I think the reason this one keeps coming back is that it is an allegory, so it has those deep biblical roots and kind of archaeological references. It’s a very profound play to rehearse, because those epic questions come up as you work: Is humanity resilient? It’s a really dystopian look at the American experiment, and I think that’s what we’re all kind of waking up to. We assumed we would be inheritors of this great ideal, and now we realize how completely fragile it is.

There are great things in the play, and there are really frustrating things in the play. As with many great theatrical artifacts, you sort of wish you could take it apart and recombine it somehow. Sometimes I think we should give ourselves permission to do important plays even if they don’t really work.

Paula Vogel

“The Skin of Our Teeth” is the first play that the playwright (“Indecent”) ever saw, at her public high school in Maryland in the 1960s. A self-described “huge fanatic about Thornton Wilder,” she regards it as an example of near perfection and said it has been deeply influential on emerging writers over the past 40 years. Ms. Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, considers the play — with its reverence for books and great thinkers, represented by Mr. Antrobus’s cherished personal library — a defense of Western humanism.

In my life, I’ve only seen two productions of it. One of the difficulties is that commercial and mainstream American drama has eschewed Wilder’s more global, abstract, philosophical voice for a kind of nitty-gritty naturalism, which doesn’t critique American society the same way that Wilder does. What I think happens is that there is a critical reprimand for choosing mythic elements and allegorical elements in American theater.

It’s an extraordinary time to be producing this play. We’re in this moment in time where we are thinking again very apocalyptically. A, we’re having extreme climate change; B, we’re having floods; C, we’re having refugees; and D, we’re actually facing the extinction of animals on our planet, and then hanging over us is the perpetual warfare. Everything in the play is pretty much upon us.

Obviously he’s writing on the brink of huge apocalypse, of World War II and Hitler, and he’s saying: “Let’s look at the resistance. Let’s look at the fact that we are going to get through this, and let’s look at what we need to get through it. What we need are our books.”

Arin Arbus

Ms. Arbus first encountered “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 2002, when the nation was still reeling from 9/11, and immediately wanted to direct it. “I thought, If I don’t do it soon, it just won’t be relevant anymore,” she said, and laughed with what sounded like ruefulness. She agrees with Wilder that the play comes alive in times of crisis, but she believes it is staged as rarely as it is partly because of its complex requirements, including a large cast and the need to balance multiple theatrical styles while leaving room for Wilder’s humor.

One of the challenges and the thrills of it is the slippery style of the play: We go kind of without transition from a Brechtian theater, in which the emotional climax of the scene is broken and commented upon, into absurdist drama with lines like “Have you milked the mammoth?” into this dark domestic family tragedy. Unlocking that is hard.

He was writing it as the world was descending into chaos. I think everybody was wondering: “Will we get through this? And if we do, what then? Will we learn anything? Will we grow or change or do it better the next time?” Although the characters do grow and they survive, they are not transformed. Evil — quote-unquote evil — remains within the nation and within the family and within the home.

Things keep falling apart, and these characters have to go through it over and over and over and over again. That’s what it’s about. The characters are continually hitting rock bottom and then finding a way — and it’s usually with the help of other people — to have the hope to move forward, despite the catastrophic situation that is facing them in that immediate moment.

Bartlett Sher

The Tony-winning director, whose “Oslo” opens on Broadway this spring, has immersed himself twice in the Wilder play: first as an assistant to the director Robert Woodruff on a Guthrie Theater production in Minneapolis in 1990, then on his own Intiman Theater staging in Seattle in 2007. He cast the deaf actor Howie Seago in the role of Mr. Antrobus — in part, Mr. Sher said, to add “another layer of Joycean logic” to the play. He has great affection for Wilder, for both his experimental nature and his capacious heart, but that didn’t make staging the play any easier.

It’s a hard, hard, hard, hard show. It’s all based on “Finnegans Wake.” He was reaching for a kind of narrative in the structure that he put together that’s incredibly interesting but which I’m not sure he was totally successful at accomplishing. It’s one of those things that everybody’s really drawn to, how much they can’t wait to do it, and then they find out how hard it’s going to be.

It has a comforting and profound view of time. It makes you think of time over a very long arc. Right now we’re all freaking out and exploding over the particular kind of time that 2017 appears to be. But if you cycle way back, you think: “Well, yes, we’re going through an incredibly bumpy period in the republic, but it’s not impossible that the institutions will survive and come out reinvigorated.”

The primary job of interpreting the classics — absolutely primary job — is to discover the immediate significance of the work in the time you’re doing it. It’s interesting that Arin is doing it now, because I tend to think these works come around when you need them. It may be one of those things where this particular time requires a good “Skin of Our Teeth” to help make sense of it.

Doonesbury — Kids these days.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Get The Hook

Josh Marshall on yesterday’s Trump presser:

This is that rare time when I think the cliched phrase is appropriate: That press conference speaks for itself. There’s very little I can think to add. It all amounts to a confirmation of what most of us already know. This man is not emotionally or characterologically equipped to serve as President. He lacks the focus, the ability to commit to even a passable amount of work without immediate emotional gratification. Thus his decision to hold a campaign rally in Florida on Saturday. (It’s literally a campaign event, put on by his 2020 reelection campaign). Trump lacks the emotional resilience or toughness to deal with what is the inevitable criticism and difficulties of being President, which – lets be clear – are great.

These different deficits all feed upon each other. He lacks the steadiness for the job.

There are credible reports of Richard Nixon being in this sort of state in the final weeks of his presidency. But Nixon, to give him his due, was at the center of the greatest political scandal in American history, bearing down on him for months and pushing him toward the greatest political disgrace and humiliation in his nation’s political history. He was overseeing the Vietnam War, witnessing various domestic civil disturbances, grappling with foreign policy blowups which neared superpower confrontations. There was a lot going on. Trump has been President for less than four weeks. Aside from domestic, media driven and other crises of his own making, virtually nothing has happened.

But the man who just appeared before the press for a free-ranging airing of grievances looked tired, sullen and half broken. His bracing insistence that everything is going perfectly in his White House sounded desperate and bizarre.

If it weren’t for the fact that lives — a lot of them — hang in the balance, it would have been fun to watch, like an old episode of Seinfeld.  But it’s not.

I don’t like to throw around words like “crazy” or “mentally ill” because that trivializes mental illness and those who suffer from them.  In addition, psychiatrists and psychologists have a taboo about diagnosing someone from afar.  But when you see events like this, you know you’re dealing with someone who either knows how to manipulate the crowd and knows exactly what kind of reaction he’s going to get from a base of True Believers, or you’re up against someone whose perceptions of reality are, shall we say, skewed.

While I’m not a psychiatrist or a medical professional, I am a doctor of theatre, specializing in dramatic criticism.  It’s perfectly within my area to review and analyze a performance from the audience and make an evaluation of what I’m seeing based on my years of study and performances.  I have to say that if Trump is acting and all of this is just a performance, he’s got it down well.  But it also requires a great deal of talent and energy to maintain that level of characterization and embodiment, and at some point the scene has to end, the lights have to come up, and the make-up comes off.  But if this is the real thing and it’s not an act, then get the hook.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

More Like A Gusher

From the New York Times:

As a candidate for president, Donald J. Trump embraced the hackers who had leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails to the press, declaring at a rally in Pennsylvania, “I love WikiLeaks!”

To the cheering throngs that night, Mr. Trump marveled that “nothing is secret today when you talk about the internet.” The leakers, he said, had performed a public service by revealing what he called a scandal with no rival in United States history.

Now, after less than four weeks in the Oval Office, President Trump has changed his mind.

At a news conference on Wednesday and in a series of Twitter postings earlier in the day, Mr. Trump angrily accused intelligence agencies of illegally leaking information about Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser, who resigned after reports that he had lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador.

“It’s a criminal action, criminal act,” Mr. Trump fumed at the White House. In a Twitter message, he asserted that “the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”

Most of the time, leaks are about power and controlling it.  Either the leakers are trying to undermine those who have it, or they’re trying to alert the public to nefarious goings-on.  It would be naive to think that all leakers have the nation’s best interest at heart — a lot of them are about sabotage, intrigue, and revenge — but in the case of Trump, we’re getting leaks from everywhere because a lot of people, including career politicians and people who may have supported Trump in the first place are seeing what’s going on now and are truly concerned about the fate of the country.  This is their way of putting the brakes on this careening train wreck.

Of course Trump is upset with leaks now.  And of course he’s raising a stink about them.  It’s called deflection: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”  To top it all off, this weekend he’s holding a campaign-style rally in Florida because that’s a lot more fun that being president.

Flynn Is The Victim Now

Via Fox News:

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz told Fox News’ “The First 100 Days” Wednesday night that he would ask the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate leaks of classified information that led to the resignation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The Utah Republican told host Martha MacCallum that “no matter where you are on the political spectrum, you cannot have classified information migrating out into a non-classified setting.”

Chaffetz’s letter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz, which was also signed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., described “serious concerns about the potential inadequate protection of classified information” and requested “that your office begin an immediate investigation into whether classified information was mishandled” in the Flynn case.

Flynn resigned Monday night after a series of media reports purportedly detailed his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions levied against Moscow by the Obama administration. The reports indicated Flynn had given Vice President Mike Pence “incomplete information” about the calls, leading Pence to deny discussion of sanctions took place.

By this weekend they’re going to blame all of this on Hillary and open up an investigation into just how she betrayed that patriotic American.

HT to Balloon Juice.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What Were They Talking About?

Via the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. At one point last summer, Mr. Trump said at a campaign event that he hoped Russian intelligence services had stolen Hillary Clinton’s emails and would make them public.

So if there’s no evidence so far that they were colluding with Russia on the hacking, what were they talking about?  Borscht recipes?  Doping the Olympics?  Arranging dates?

How’s He Doing So Far?

Well, you can’t say he’s been resting on his laurels.

In record time, the 45th president has set off global outrage with a ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries, fired his acting attorney general for refusing to defend the ban and watched as federal courts swiftly moved to block the policy, calling it an unconstitutional use of executive power.

The president angrily provoked the cancellation of a summit meeting with the Mexican president, hung up on Australia’s prime minister, authorized a commando raid that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL member, repeatedly lied about the existence of millions of fraudulent votes cast in the 2016 election and engaged in Twitter wars with senators, a sports team owner, a Hollywood actor and a major department store chain. His words and actions have generated almost daily protests around the country.

He told us he was coming to Washington to shake things up.  So far he’s got nothing to worry about in that department.

In another five days his presidency will have outlasted that of William Henry Harrison.  Care to bet on if he makes it as long as James A. Garfield?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Imagine The Howls

Via the Washington Post:

Trump was aware that his national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled White House officials and Vice President Pence for “weeks” before he was forced to resign on Monday night.

Trump was briefed by White House Counsel Don McGahn that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador “immediately” after McGahn was informed that Flynn had misled Pence, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.

“We’ve been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to Gen. Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth,” Spicer said.

The comments contradict the impression given by Trump on Friday aboard Air Force One that he was not familiar with a Washington Post report that revealed that Flynn had not told the truth about the calls.

“I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that,” Trump told the plane.

If President Obama had known that one of his top advisers had not just lied to Vice President Biden and the White House staff but lied about it for weeks, the impeachment would have been over and done in twenty minutes.

Oh, and if Mike Pence had any scruples whatsoever, he’d tell Trump to get bent and resign.  Yeah, that’ll happen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

They Don’t Trust Him

From the New York Times:

These are chaotic and anxious days inside the National Security Council, the traditional center of management for a president’s dealings with an uncertain world.

Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.

Say or think what you will about spies, spying, and who’s watching who, the country can little afford to be unsure about its dealings with the outside world and the person who is supposed to be responsible for preserving and protecting us.  It’s one thing to keep your political opponents guessing at what you’re doing; it’s entirely another when your own intelligence community can’t figure out what you’re doing.

But what if they don’t trust the president enough with secret information because they’re not sure he won’t blab about it on the phone or tweet about it, or that the president’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, won’t share it with the Russians?  John R. Schindler, a former security analyst at the NSA, has concerns.

Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration—not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump—that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.

That the IC has ample grounds for concern is demonstrated by almost daily revelations of major problems inside the White House, a mere three weeks after the inauguration. The president has repeatedly gone out of his way to antagonize our spies, mocking them and demeaning their work, and Trump’s personal national security guru can’t seem to keep his story straight on vital issues.

That’s Mike Flynn, the retired Army three-star general who now heads the National Security Council. Widely disliked in Washington for his brash personality and preference for conspiracy-theorizing over intelligence facts, Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for managerial incompetence and poor judgment—flaws he has brought to the far more powerful and political NSC.

Flynn’s problems with the truth have been laid bare by the growing scandal about his dealings with Moscow. Strange ties to the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin himself, have dogged Flynn since he left DIA, and concerns about his judgment have risen considerably since it was revealed that after the November 8 election, Flynn repeatedly called the Russian embassy in Washington to discuss the transition. The White House has denied that anything substantive came up in conversations between Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.

That was a lie, as confirmed by an extensively sourced bombshell report in TheWashington Post, which makes clear that Flynn grossly misrepresented his numerous conversations with Kislyak—which turn out to have happened before the election too, part of a regular dialogue with the Russian embassy. To call such an arrangement highly unusual in American politics would be very charitable.

[…]

What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.

None of this has happened in Washington before. A White House with unsettling links to Moscow wasn’t something anybody in the Pentagon or the Intelligence Community even considered a possibility until a few months ago. Until Team Trump clarifies its strange relationship with the Kremlin, and starts working on its professional honesty, the IC will approach the administration with caution and concern.

Having a president who is proud to be “unpredictable” may sell to a base that thinks that James Bond movies are documentaries and that keeping the Russkies guessing is still part of our way of winning the Cold War, but it could end up with a lot of us getting killed.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday Reading

The Two-Year Presidency — Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post.

Good news: In two years, we’ll have a new president. Bad news: If we make it that long.

My “good” prediction is based on the Law of the Pendulum. Enough Americans, including most independent voters, will be so ready to shed Donald Trump and his little shop of horrors that the 2018 midterm elections are all but certain to be a landslide — no, make that a mudslide — sweep of the House and Senate. If Republicans took both houses in a groundswell of the people’s rejection of Obamacare, Democrats will take them back in a tsunami of protest.

Once ensconced, it would take a Democratic majority approximately 30 seconds to begin impeachment proceedings selecting from an accumulating pile of lies, overreach and just plain sloppiness. That is, assuming Trump hasn’t already been shown the exit.

Or that he hasn’t declared martial law (all those anarchists, you know) and effectively silenced dissent. We’re already well on our way to the latter via Trump’s incessant attacks on the media — “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” — and press secretary Sean Spicer’s rabid-chihuahua, daily press briefings. (Note to Sean: Whatever he’s promised you, it’s not worth becoming Melissa McCarthy’s punching bag. But really, don’t stop.)With luck, and Cabinet-level courage that is not much in evidence, there’s a chance we won’t have to wait two long years, during which, let’s face it, anything could happen. In anticipation of circumstances warranting a speedier presidential replacement, wiser minds added Section 4 to the 25th Amendment, which removes the president if a majority of the Cabinet and the vice president think it necessary, i.e., if the president is injured or falls too ill to serve. Or, by extension, by being so incompetent — or not-quite-right — that he or she poses a threat to the nation and must be removed immediately and replaced by the vice president.

Aren’t we there, yet?

Thus far, Trump and his henchmen have conducted a full frontal assault on civil liberties, open government and religious freedom, as well as instigating or condoning a cascade of ethics violations ranging from the serious (business conflicts of interest) to the absurd (attacking a department store for dropping his daughter’s fashion line). And, no, it’s not just a father defending his daughter. It’s the president of the United States bullying a particular business and, more generally, making a public case against free enterprise.

To an objective observer, it would seem impossible to defend the perilous absurdities emanating from the White House and from at least one executive agency, the Agriculture Department, which recently scrubbed animal abuse reports from its website, leaving puppies, kittens, horses and others to fend for themselves.

In a hopeful note, a few Republicans are speaking out, but the list is short.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz recently got a taste of what’s ahead for Republican incumbents. Facing an unruly crowd at a town hall meeting in Utah, the House Oversight Committee chairman was booed nearly every time he mentioned Trump. Even if many in the crowd were members of opposition groups, the evening provided a glimpse of the next two years. From 2010’s tea party to 2018’s resistance, the pendulum barely had time to pause before beginning its leftward trek.

While we wait for it to someday find the nation’s center, where so many wait impatiently, it seems clear that the president, who swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, has never read it. Nor, apparently, has he ever even watched a Hollywood rendering of the presidency. A single episode of “The West Wing” would have taught Trump more about his new job than he seems to know — or care.

Far more compelling than keeping his promise to act presidential is keeping campaign promises against reason, signing poorly conceived executive orders, bashing the judicial and legislative branches, and tweeting his spleen to a wondering and worrying world.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Short Takes

Appeals court rules unanimously against Trump’s executive order on immigration.

It’s a no-no: Conway gets schooled on hawking Ivanka merchandise.

Heavy winter storm cancels thousands of flights in the Northeast.

Russian airstrike kills Turkish soldiers.

Aretha Franklin announces her retirement.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Spare Me

Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post is trying to make us feel sorry that Trump is sitting around the White House all alone in his bathrobe watching TV.

The simple fact is that Trump has never had real friends in the sense you or I think of the term. The relationship world of Trump has long been split into two groups: (1) his family and (2) people who work for him. And people who work for you are rarely your actual friends.

What is also true is that Trump is, in an odd sort of way, a reclusive family man. He is someone who likes routine and likes to be around his family. Hell, he built a hotel that he both works and lives in! Even during the campaign, Trump flew on his own plane surrounded by his kids — a protective, comfortable bubble amid the back and forth of the race.

That family bubble has been disrupted by Trump’s election. His wife, Melania, and youngest son, Barron, live in New York during the week. His sons Eric and Don Jr. are tasked with running the family business in New York and, theoretically, not allowed to confer with their dad on matters that relate to the affairs of Trump Inc. His daughter, Ivanka, is busy establishing herself in D.C.

Without the comfort of Trump Tower and robbed of the proximity of his family, Trump is a man apart. He has cable TV, his phone and Twitter. But he lacks a group of friends or confidants — again, outside his immediate family — with whom he can have dinner or just chat. He is isolated — and in the most high-powered and high-stress job in the world. That’s a very tough place to be.

Oh, please, set it to music.  He doesn’t need friends — or in his case, boot-lickers and toadies.  He needs to learn his new job and not be making it up as he goes along.  Being president, as Harry Truman noted, is the loneliest job on the planet and if Trump was capable of looking outside his own little bubble of his fat flabby ego, he’d realize that.  And so would anyone who objectively observes reality, unlike Chris Cillizza who seems to think it will all get better if we just give Trump a big hug.

Dragging Him Down

Saturday Night Live’s sketches with Alec Baldwin nailing Trump may be the new normal for satirical send-ups, but last Saturday night’s portrayal of White House press secretary Sean Spicer by Melissa McCarthy may have done more damage, at least to someone’s ego, according to Politico.

As the press secretary for a president who’s obsessed with how things play on cable TV, Sean Spicer’s real audience during his daily televised press briefings has always been an audience of one.

And the devastating “Saturday Night Live” caricature of Spicer that aired over the weekend — in which a belligerent Spicer was spoofed by a gum-chomping, super soaker-wielding Melissa McCarthy in drag — did not go over well internally at a White House in which looks matter.

More than being lampooned as a press secretary who makes up facts, it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president’s eyes, according to sources close to him. And the unflattering send-up by a female comedian was not considered helpful for Spicer’s longevity in the grueling, high-profile job in which he has struggled to strike the right balance between representing an administration that considers the media the “opposition party,” and developing a functional relationship with the press.

“Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak,” added a top Trump donor.

Trump’s uncharacteristic Twitter silence over the weekend about the “Saturday Night Live” sketch was seen internally as a sign of how uncomfortable it made the White House feel. Sources said the caricature of Spicer by McCarthy struck a nerve and was upsetting to the press secretary and to his allies, who immediately saw how damaging it could be in Trump world.

Heh.  Keep this up, SNL, and Sean Spicer will be looking to spend more time with his family and become the newest contributor to Fox News.

Too Much For Yoo

John Yoo was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department under George W. Bush, and he became famous — or infamous — for, in his words, “advising that President George W could take vigorous, perhaps extreme, measures to protect the nation after the Sept. 11 attacks, including invading Afghanistan, opening the Guantánamo detention center and conducting military trials and enhanced interrogation of terrorist leaders.”  In other words, torture such as waterboarding and other such measures were fine with him; they fell well within the president’s power to protect the country.

So you’d think he’d be on board with Trump’s rampages against immigration and his sweeping use of the executive orders.

Guess again.  Via his op-ed in the New York Times:

But even I have grave concerns about Mr. Trump’s uses of presidential power.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump gave little sign that he understood the constitutional roles of the three branches, as when he promised to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would investigate Hillary Clinton. (Judge Neil M. Gorsuch will not see this as part of his job description.) In his Inaugural Address, Mr. Trump did not acknowledge that his highest responsibility, as demanded by his oath of office, is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Instead, he declared his duty to represent the wishes of the people and end “American carnage,” seemingly without any constitutional restraint.

[…]

A successful president need not have a degree in constitutional law. But he should understand the Constitution’s grant of executive power. He should share Hamilton’s vision of an energetic president leading the executive branch in a unified direction, rather than viewing the government as the enemy. He should realize that the Constitution channels the president toward protecting the nation from foreign threats, while cooperating with Congress on matters at home.

Otherwise, our new president will spend his days overreacting to the latest events, dissipating his political capital and haphazardly wasting the executive’s powers.

When you’ve lost the chief proponent president’s use of whatever means possible, including torture, you’ve got a problem.