Another day, another shrug

I’ve found a handy application for Twitter is using it to stockpile reminders about things that our president has done, things that we once would have said were unbelievable about any president but that in the last few years we have found all to easy to believe about this one.  Things that make us nod our heads and say “there he goes again.”  (I think Ronald Reagan would approve of us quoting him in this way, don’t you?  I think so.)  Just this afternoon there was this:

…in which maybe there is actually the possibility that a president can take this action, but not clear that he can do so.  And Congress does have room to fight back (not that today’s Congress is going to do that, of course; that much is a given).  Also today I saw this item, which I’m sure is just a coincidence (right?):

It feels like every day the Stable Genius invites disbelief and ridicule by making up something, something clearly false and easily disproved, just so he can praise himself:

If you care about the government’s budget deficit—I know this is of no concern to you any more, Republican members of Congress—we got the news this week that the deficit is snowballing toward record highs, thanks in large part to the Trump tax cut:

In fairness, Trump didn’t do this one all by himself—he had the cooperation of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.  The trade war with China, the one that’s got the stock markets around the world concerned: that one’s all on him.

All of this is just from this week, and this list is far from exhaustive (and we don’t know yet what he’ll do at the G7 meeting, other than campaign for his boy Putin):

The story of the film so far

The top level news from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the attorney general on his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is important confirmation: the Russians did try to influence the outcome of our 2016 presidential election.  Based on Bill Barr’s summary of the report sent to Congress last Sunday, the only currently available report on the report’s contents (a source I choose to trust, as I trust the effort of Mueller’s team), we should now have no reasonable disagreement that Vladimir Putin’s government committed cyber war on our country, and that we should be doing something about it.  I know our president has belittled that notion in the past (disagreeing with the findings of our country’s intelligence community; not clear why), but if he’s going to accept the other conclusions from the Mueller investigation he’ll have a hard time disagreeing with this one by blaming the messenger.  (I say that despite Trump’s demonstrated disdain for anything approaching intellectual consistency, but still…)

Next up: Mueller does not find evidence to indicate that Trump or any of the people in his campaign intentionally or unintentionally worked with the Russians to influence the outcome of the election: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”  I find I agree with the analysis that this is good news…for everybody.  For Trump, certainly, in that it seems to clear him from being pursued criminally in that respect, reduces the chance of impeachment proceedings, and provides a political boost for his 2020 campaign.  But also for our country, in that we can take some solace in knowing that our president and his people did not conspire with a foreign government to seize power.  This was never a given, sadly, so it’s good to know now.

I also agree with the many who argue for the public release of Mueller’s complete report.  A shorthand argument: if the report “completely exonerates” Trump, as he insists it does, then we should all get to share the happy details.  A good longer version comes from David French in Sunday’s National Review:

The American people need full disclosure — and not just of the Mueller report itself. We need to see relevant FISA applications, supporting documents, classified testimony, and any other evidence relevant to not just the Mueller investigation itself but also to the inception of the Trump–Russia investigation. This conclusion is rendered even more urgent by two important political realities.

The first relates to the obstruction of justice. As Barr explains in his letter, the Mueller report neither accuses Trump of committing obstruction of justice in the course of the investigation, nor does it exonerate him [emphasis added]. Instead, the attorney general and deputy attorney general (both Trump appointees) examined the evidence and concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient” to conclude that the president obstructed justice. Democrats will trust this conclusion exactly as much as Republicans would trust a Democratic attorney general to evaluate the actions of a Democratic president.

(snip)

…nothing in Barr’s letter excuses the fact that Trump hired and surrounded himself with some of the worst people in politics — felons and liars who sometimes committed crimes in the ham-handed attempt to cover up their own contacts or attempted contacts with Russian assets or operatives. The president’s personal lawyer, his campaign chair, his longtime friend and adviser, and his first national-security adviser (among others) each engaged in patterns of deception that were not only criminal, they created real and genuine alarm in fair-minded Americans that at least some people in the president’s inner circle were more than willing to work with our enemies abroad to gain financial or political advantage here at home.

But these facts notwithstanding, there are still grounds for immense relief that America’s most recent presidential election has been (further) legitimized and that years of speculation about President Trump’s ties to the Russian government have proven unfounded. These last 30 months of investigations — beginning well before Mueller’s appointment — are among the most divisive and contentious events in modern political history. As we wait to read the full report and move into the inevitable battles over its contents, we can be sure that more division and contention await. Yet today, at least, we can be grateful for the good news we have, and it is good news indeed.

Mark Joseph Stern echoes French’s argument in the sense that full disclosure of the Mueller report is also necessary for analysts to determine if Barr’s quick assessment and summary of the results of the 22-month investigation were an improper effort to head off further action against the president who appointed him to the job.

Barr outlined one key finding unambiguously: The Trump campaign, he wrote, did not coordinate with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. That conclusion will come as a great relief to the president and his supporters, if Mueller’s report is as clear-cut as Barr indicates. But the attorney general’s summary includes a second finding that is confusing and equivocal. Mueller, Barr wrote, left “unresolved” the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. He instead laid out “evidence of both sides” and allowed Barr, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to use those findings to determine whether the president committed obstruction. On the basis of this evidence and analysis—which we cannot yet evaluate—Barr and Rosenstein decided that Trump did not commit such an offense.

This portion of the summary will remain a puzzle until Mueller’s report is released to the public. But Barr provided a clue to his reasoning, by suggesting that he did not see evidence Trump hampered the Russia probe with “corrupt intent.” As former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has noted, it is hard to understand how Barr, or Mueller, or anyone, could gauge Trump’s intent, because the president has not been interviewed about his intentions. Why not? We know at least one person vigorously opposed to compelling Trump to submit to an interview: Bill Barr, whose 2018 memo declared that Mueller could not legally do so.

The full report will be beneficial to Congressional committees, too, to the extent that they are resolved to pull their heads out of their asses and start providing checks and balances of the executive branch rather than being the president’s cheering section and public defender.

So we wait, for…who knows how long.  Barr has said he’s all about the transparency, the president says he doesn’t mind at all if the report is made public, but there’s no requirement in law that it ever be released to anyone other than the AG nor any mention of a time limit for so doing.  That’s given Dahlia Lithwick time to bemoan the fact that facts don’t, in fact, seem to matter…that this issue has already devolved into political posturing and stupidity without most of us ever seeing what Mueller did, in fact, report.

Someday, when we’re sitting around the electronic campfires we’ve lit to pretend-warm the huts in our Mars colonies, we will tell our grandchildren about whatever vestigial memories we have of facts. Perhaps we will be able to date their demise to the 46-ish hours between the announcement on Friday, March 22, 2019, that Robert Mueller had submitted his final report to Attorney General William Barr, and the letter Barr released on Sunday, March 24, 2019, which purported to summarize its contents and legal conclusions entirely.

In those 46 hours, there were exactly two facts known: that nobody else had been indicted by Mueller, and that Barr did not find any proposed action by Mueller to be “inappropriate or unwarranted.” That was, quite literally, all we knew. And into that void—that absence of facts—swept the spin. On Fox News, the declamation came forth that there had been an actual finding, of, what else, “no collusion.” Indeed, as Justin Peters noted, the television news station that exists exclusively to protect and defend the president’s preferred narrative declared, without basis in any publicly known or knowable fact, that it was “No Collusion Day!” While every other network was trying to parse out scenarios and future outcomes, and carefully explaining that nothing definitive had been shared with the public, conservative media and congressional Republicans were already claiming that the facts had been amassed, and assessed and released, and supported their cause. Were they clairvoyant? Did they have some insider information? No, they just had the special feeling they get at Fox: The facts are not material to the claim. In the absence of any knowable facts, Republicans declare victory and invent their own. In the absence of any knowable facts, Democrats declare defeat.

Still, you kinda feel like there’s so much more to know, so much more you want to know.  We need to know…

Diagnosing Baby Donald

Franklin Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression eager to try out potential remedies for the economic crisis, so he set an arbitrary mark of the first 100 days in office as a goal for measuring progress.  Ever since, journalists looking for a ready-made story have used the excuse of a new president’s first 100 days to issue a report card on his or her progress in enacting campaign promises into law.  This week President Bannon and his team started off downplaying the significance of the silly benchmark, calling it “an artificial barrier” and a “ridiculous standard” that’s “not very meaningful.”  And then spent the rest of the week in “a flurry of action on health care, taxes and the border wall to show just how much he has done in the first 100 days—amplified by a White House program of first-100-days briefings, first-100-days receptions, a first-100-days website and a first-100-days rally.”

“As with so much else, [Donald] Trump is a study in inconsistency,” said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. “One minute he says his 100 days have been the best of any president, and the next minute he decries the idea of measuring a president by the 100 days.”

What do others say?  While some think this president has done some good things, I haven’t found anyone outside of the White House who would completely agree with the administration’s estimate of its own effectiveness.

The president stated flatly to an audience in Kenosha that “No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days;” PolitiFact responds: “Trump has had some achievements in office, but at the very least, they are much less numerous and far-reaching than those of Roosevelt, the standard against whom all presidents are measured. In more recent years, other presidents, including Obama, have accomplished more in their first 100 days than Trump has, historians say. We rate the claim False.”

Vox.com is willing to give the new president credit for his success—at making money for himself, his family, and his businesses while “serving” the American people.

“Trump isn’t failing. He and his family appear to be making money hand over fist. It’s a spectacle the likes of which we’ve never seen in the United States, and while it may end in disaster for the Trumps someday, for now it shows no real sign of failure,” reports Vox, reminding the reader that Trump is still able to personally access profits from his businesses and that his actions as president are actually leading to government expenditures that go straight into his own pocket; for example:

Like many previous presidents, he golfs. And like all presidents who golf, when he hits the green, he is accompanied by Secret Service agents. The agents use golf carts to get around the courses. And to get their hands on the golf carts, they need to rent them from the golf courses at which the president plays. All of this is fundamentally normal — except for the fact that Trump golfs at courses he owns. So when the Secret Service spends $35,000 on Mar-a-Lago golf cart rentals, it’s not just a normal security expense — Trump is personally profiting from his own protection.

Grading a president on how many of his policies have been enacted into law puts his 100-days rating at the mercy of the Congress which must pass those bills.  Although his ability to work with the legislative branch, rather than to try to dictate to it, is a valuable guide to a president’s effectiveness, maybe that isn’t the most straightforward way to tell if he’s doing a good job.

And let’s not indulge the argument here that all of the things Trump said that he wanted to do are bad things; William Saletan argues in Slate that the better way to judge is to consider if he’s done what he said he would do:

You can be sick of low wages and lost jobs, disgusted with the Clintons, angry about Obamacare, and wary of open borders without being a monster. My argument to you isn’t that Trump is bad because he addresses these concerns. My argument is that he addresses them badly. If you want better jobs, better health care, better border security, a stronger America, less corruption, and less debt, Trump is taking you in the wrong direction. And he’ll keep making things worse until you stop him.

Saletan finds that in Trump’s first 100 days  he has failed in his promises to fight for the working man, to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better, to strengthen our borders, to reduce the national debt (he’s increased it!), to drain the swamp, or to honor the military.

What we’ve learned in Trump’s first 100 days, in short, is that he’s bad at the job. Maybe last fall you decided to give him a chance. Or maybe you felt you had to choose between two bad candidates, and you could only stop one of them. So you voted against Hillary, and you got this instead.

You don’t have to stand for it. Call your senators and your member of Congress. Demand better health care and a fairer tax system. Go to their town halls. Tell them to oppose Trump when he doesn’t do what’s right for the country. If they don’t listen to you, organize and vote them out next year. Trump’s first 100 days have been bad. We don’t need another four years like them.

(Even Trump is surprised at how he’s done so far: “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”)

There’s little reason for us to believe things are going to get better, or normal-er, more like what we’ve been used to with every previous president, all on their own.  Not when you consider that the erratic, impulsive, self-promoting behavior we’ve all been witness to is at such a degree that a group of mental health professionals has felt the need to ignore a portion of the American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics to issue a warning about the president’s mental health and to offer suggestions for how we all deal with the fallout.

Let us stipulate that it is not known for a fact that Trump has any kind of psychiatric diagnosis. Let us also stipulate that, to many observers, the most powerful man in the world displays many of the definitional traits of one disorder in particular: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, characterized by behavior that is impulsive, dramatic and erratic. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with NPD “come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious,” require “constant admiration” and belittle people they “perceive as inferior.” This grandiose, bullying shell hides profound insecurity, so “anything that may be perceived as criticism” can provoke “rage or contempt.”

Baby Donald is a child of privilege who’s always been able to buy whatever he wanted, whether a new toy or a new person in his orbit (or a new wife) or a way out of trouble.  He’s been surrounded by yes-men-and-women who rely on him for their livelihoods, so he has precious little experience of having to deal with a differing opinion.  When he opens his mouth his instinct is to educate the listener about his own extraordinary self, and to state as incontrovertible that which he wishes in that moment to be true, without regard for whether the statement is consistent with previous ones or with any known facts.

In reality, it’s not just Congress or world leaders or White House staffers who are in Trump’s orbit and at the whim of his personality traits. We all are. [New Jersey therapist and author] Wendy Behary says that when dealing with such a person, the best defense is to read deeply about psychopathology. Ultimately, she says, understanding the dynamics of personality disorders will help make what seems unpredictable predictable. The more people know, the less they will wonder, “How could he do that?” and come to understand, “How could he not?”

Just shut up and let me do the talking

It’s about damn time that the public reports about the private negotiations on the federal budget had some good news: Speaker Boehner and President Obama have gotten everyone else to leave the room!

Since the election last month there’s been plenty of balloon juice about how to avoid running the federal budget over a “fiscal cliff,” which is just an agreement made last year between Congress and the administration on a set of tax increases and budget cuts that would go into effect at the first of next year unless they took some other action on taxes and spending by that deadline. Remember when they said that Washington had “kicked the can down the road?” Well, this is where that can stopped; it was kicked to here so the issue wouldn’t inconveniently get noticed while America was paying attention during the fall election campaigns.

You’d like to think that there would have been some effort underway all along during the past year and a half to find a compromise on ways to strengthen the economy and reduce the government’s budget deficit, but to all appearances there wasn’t. The people we elected to go to Washington to use their judgment and wisdom in the best interests of our communities and our states and our country couldn’t climb down off their talking points long enough to get anything constructive accomplished. They could, however, make a lot of noise about the virtuousness of their own moral and political philosophies, and by extension if not by direct accusation the seditious intentions of their “friends across the aisle.” Perfect way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation over disagreements, right?

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that any honest effort to come to a compromise on a course of action regarding a disputed issue isn’t aided by (1) having too many negotiators at the table, and (2) conducting the negotiations in public. The more people that are involved, the harder it is to get everyone to agree on anything. And the more the people who are involved do their talking in public and make great political show of what they will and will not accept, the harder they make it on themselves to come to a compromise without seeming to lose face in public or run the risk of being bashed as surrender monkeys or traitors to some cause or other. So it seems to me to be a thoroughly sensible decision that Boehner has asked the Senate leaders and the House Democratic leader to step back, and that “White House aides and the speaker’s staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks” in the hope that some real progress can be made.

Now for the entertainment portion of today’s post: since I’m not one to overlook an opportunity to point out stupidity where it exists, I should highlight this. The Times story notes that as the president reaffirmed his position that the tax rate on incomes above $250,000 must go up…

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. [Richard] Durbin said.

History indeed: had to filibuster his own bill to keep it from being passed! I’m thinking that Ashley Judd might be just the thing the U.S. Senate and the people of Kentucky need.