Sunday, September 9, 2018

Weekend Roundup

This is how last week started, with a few choice tidbits from Bob Woodward's new book, Fear: Trump in the White House: Philip Rucker/Robert Costa: Bob Woodward's new book reveals a 'nervous breakdown' of Trump's presidency As Aaron Blake (in The Most damning portrait of Trump's presidency yet -- by far):

Bob Woodward's book confirms just about everything President Trump's critics and those who closely study the White House already thought to be the case inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's also completely stunning.

The book doesn't go public until 9/11 -- wouldn't you like to have been a "fly on the wall" for the marketing sessions that picked that date? -- but not much that's been reported so far is surprising. I've long suspected that Trump ordered a plan to pre-emptively attack North Korea, and that the military brass refused to give him one, but that story didn't strike Blake as important enough to even mention. (He does cite Trump's tantrum over Syria: "Let's fucking kill him! Let's go in. Let's kill the fucking lot of them.") Still, the main effect of the book leaks was simply to get the mainstream press to return to such quickly forgotten stories, and to provoke more reactions to feed the 24-hour cable news cycle.

One such reaction was the now infamous New York Times anonymous op-ed piece, I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration, reportedly by "a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure." Again, this has mostly been reported as a dis of Trump, but it is actually a very scary document, revealing that even as deranged as Trump is, he's not the most despicable and dangerous person in his administration. When the author claims "like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations," they're not doing it out of any sense of higher loyalty to law and the constitution. They're doing it to advance their own undemocratic, rigidly conservative political agenda. And if these people are really "the adults in the room," as competent as they think, they'll probably wind up doing more real harm to the people than Trump could ever do on his own.

Of course, the op-ed launched a huge guessing game as to the author. Trump played along, tweeting something about "TREASON" and urging Atty. General Jeff Sessions to investigate (although on further reflection I doubt he'd really welcome another DOJ investigation of his staff). And, of course, everyone who is anyone in the administration has denied responsibility -- hardly a surprise given that a willingness to stand up for truth and take responsibility for one's actions were disqualifying marks for any Trump administration job. Besides, as John Judis notes, "I'd look for whoever in the administration most vociferously denounces the author of the op-ed."

For an overview, see Andrew Prokop: Who is the senior Trump official who wrote the New York Times op-ed? -- although you'd have to go to the links to come up with possible names and reasons. Jimmy Kimmel noticed the unusual word "lodestar" and came up with a reel of Mike Pence using the word in a half-dozen different speeches. (Colbert ran the same revelation a day later.) Actually, that suggests Pence's speechwriter, whoever that is. Indeed, there are dozens of anonymous little folk you've never heard of scurrying around the West Wing offices, where they could stealthily carry on the "good fight" of enforcing rightist orthodoxy. It's not like anyone had ever heard of Rob Porter before he got fired, but his precise job was to shuffle papers for Trump's signature.

The other thing to remember about Pence is that he was the main person responsible for staffing the Administration after Trump got elected, so he's likely the main reason why all these totally orthodox conservatives have been empowered and turned loose to wreak havoc on the administrative state -- indeed, on the very notion that the government is meant to serve the people and promote the general welfare of the nation.

Additional links on Woodward and/or the Anonymous op-ed:

  • Masha Gessen: The Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed and the Trumpian Corruption of Language and the Media:

    The Op-Ed section is separate from the news operation, but, in protecting the identity of the person who wrote the Op-Ed, the paper forfeits the job of holding power to account. . . . By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.

    The way in which the news media are being corrupted -- even an outlet like the Times, which continues to publish remarkable investigative work throughout this era -- is one of the most insidious, pronounced, and likely long-lasting effects of the Trump Administration. The media are being corrupted every time they engage with a nonsensical, false, or hateful Trump tweet (although not engaging with these tweets is not an option). They are being corrupted every time journalists act polite while the President, his press secretary, or other Administration officials lie to them. They are being corrupted every time a Trumpian lie is referred to as a "falsehood," a "factually incorrect statement," or as anything other than a lie. They are being corrupted every time journalists allow the Administration to frame an issue, like when they engage in a discussion about whether the separation of children from their parents at the border is an effective deterrent against illegal immigration. They are being corrupted every time they use the phrase "illegal immigration."

  • David A Graham: We're Watching an Antidemocratic Coup Unfold: Graham basically agrees with David Frum (see This Is a Constitutional Crisis, a piece I read then decided wasn't important enough to cite) that acts by White House staff to subvert Trump's presidential directives constitute some kind of attack on American democracy, even though they both agree that Trump is crazy, demented, stupid and cruel. I think they're way overreacting. On the one hand, it's simply not reasonable that any president -- even one elected with a much less ambiguous mandate than Trump was -- should have the power to dictate the acts of everyone who works under the executive branch. The fact is that everyone who works for government has to satisfy multiple directives, starting with the constitution and the legal code, and in many cases other professional codes, labor contracts, and job descriptions. On the other hand, every organization involves a good deal of delegation and specialization, and virtually all managers expect subordinates to push back against ill considered directives. Most of the concrete cases Woodward cites are occasions where rejecting Trump's directives is fully appropriate. The author of the "we are the resistance" op-ed is a different case because he (or, unlikely, she) is claiming a higher political right to go rogue, but in the absence of specific cases that isn't even clearly the case. What we probably do agree on is that Trump himself thinks he should have more direct power over his administration than he does in fact have, and this is more painfully obvious than is normally the case because he tends to make exceptionally dreadful decisions, because in turn he's uninformed, impetuous, unwilling to listen to expertise, and unable to reason effectively. Given the kind of person Trump is, occasional staff resistance is inevitable, and should be recognized as the normal functioning of the bureaucracy. (Graham actually cites a previous example of this: "Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, worried by Richard Nixon's heavy drinking, instructed generals not to launch any strikes without his say-so -- effectively granting himself veto power over the president.")

  • Greg Sargent: Trump's paranoid rage is getting worse. But the White House 'resistance' is a sham.<

  • David Von Drehle: The only solid bet is on Trump's panic (but the op-ed was probably Jared): I'm mostly linking to this because my wife's been offering opinions on who did it all week, and her latest pick is Kushner. I don't buy this for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the op-ed reads like the work of an ideological purist -- something I seriously doubt of Kushner. (I also doubt Kushner could write it without a lot of help -- whatever else you may think, it is very well crafted.) On the other hand, the bottom third about the Mueller investigation makes perfect sense, and gives you a lot to think about. The public hasn't seen Trump's tax returns, but "Mueller almost certainly possesses" them. Also financial transaction records from Deutsche Bank, "which also coughed up $630 million in fines in 2017 to settle charges of participating in a $10 billion Russian money-laundering scheme."

Concurrently, the Senate Judiciary Hearing has been holding hearings on Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Bret Kavanaugh. Some links:

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: No summary of the week, but he wrote some important pieces this week:

    • John McCain's memorial service was not a resistance event: Cites Susan Glasser's New Yorker article for its ridiculous resistance meme -- something I wrote about last week. As noted, McCain's occasional dissent from Trump rarely had anything to do with policy, and when it did it was usually because Trump has never been as steadfastly pro-war as McCain. (Arguably Trump is so impetuous and erratic he's ultimately more dangerous, but I don't believe that.) Sure, one might imagine a principled conservative opposition to Trump, but Republicans gave up any hint of such principles ages ago (e.g., when Arthur Vanderberg welcomed the military-industrial complex, when Barry Goldwater sided with segregation, when Richard Nixon decided winning mattered more than following the law, when all Reagan and Bush decided to sacrifice abortion rights for political expediency, when right-wing jurists ruled that free speech rights are proportional to money, and that anything that tips an election in your favor is fair play). But it's real hard to find any actual Republican politicians who adhere to such conservative principles. On the other hand, there is a real resistance, not just to Trump but to the whole conservative political movement.

      Also on McCain: Eric Lovitz: John McCain's Service in Vietnam Was a Tragedy.

    • Trump's White House says wages are rising more than liberals think: This gets pretty deep in the weeds, trying to make "the best case for Trump: surging consumer confidence," but concluding "wage growth isn't zero, but it's still pretty low." My hunch is that it feels even worse, because Trump's anti-union and other deregulation efforts are aimed at increasing corporate power both over workers and consumers, while those and other policies shift risk onto individuals.

    • Republicans are preparing to disavow Trump if he fails -- then come back and try the same policies: You've heard this one before: every time conservatives get political power, they screw things up -- Reagan ended in various scandals from HUD to S&Ls to Iran-Contra, Bush I in a rash of short wars and recession, Bush II with his endless wars and even huger recession, and now Trump with his ticking cacophony of time bombs -- but bounce back by claiming that their ideas never got a fair chance. As the subhed puts it, 'Conservatism can never fail, only be failed." Indeed, Trump's catastrophic failure now seems so ordained that some Republicans are already heading for the exits and shelters, preparing themselves for the next wave of resurgent conservatism. Paul Ryan is the most obvious example.

    • Republicans are arguing that Medicare-for-all will undermine Medicare: Same old strategy they've always used, sowing FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) to rally the uninformed and easily confused against any proposed change. Still, seems a little far fetched, especially coming from the party that tried to stop Medicare from passing in the first place, the same one that periodically comes up with new schemes to weaken it.

    • Obama wants Democrats to quit their addiction to the status quo. Alternate title, the one actually on the page: "Obama just gave the speech the left's wanted since he left office." Actually, the left wanted him to step up 9-10 years ago, back when he was in a position to do more than just talk. And while he embraces the "new idea" of Medicare for All, ten years ago that was actually better understood program than the one the Democrats passed and Obama got tarred and feathered with. Yglesias wonders how effective Obama speaking out might be. To my mind, the key thing that he's signaling is that mainstream Democrats shouldn't fear the party moving to the left. Rather, they need to keep up with their voters. For more on Obama's speech, see Dylan Scott: The 7 most important moments in Obama's blistering critique of Trump and the GOP: Starts with "It did not start with Donald Trump."

  • Tara Golshan/Ella Nilsen: Trump says a shutdown would be a "great political issue" 2 months from the midterms: On the surface this seems like a monumentally stupid thing to say. I think we've had enough experience lately with playing chicken over budget shutdowns that it's pretty clear that whoever initiates the shutdown loses. If Trump doesn't get this by now, that can only suggest he's, well, some kind of, you know, moron.

  • Dara Lind: Trump's new plan to detain immigrant families indefinitely, explained: Some highlights:

    • Tighten the standards for releasing migrant children from detention
    • Detain families in facilities that haven't been formally approved for licenses
    • Give facilities broad "emergency" loopholes for not meeting standards of care
    • Make it easier for the government to revoke the legal protections for "unaccompanied" children
  • Ernesto Londono/Nicholas Casey: Trump Administration Discussed Coup Plans With Rebel Venezuelan Officers: Takeaway quote: "Maduro has long justified his grip on Venezuela by claiming that Washington imperialists are actively trying to depose him, and the secret talks could provide him with ammunition to chip away at the region's nearly united stance against him." Trump has also talked up staging an outright US military invasion.

  • German Lopez: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's disastrous handling of a police shooting tanked his reelection bid: Emanuel announced he won't run for third term, even though he had already raised $10 million for the campaign.

  • Rick Perlstein/Livia Gershon: Stolen Elections, Voting Dogs and Other Fantastic Fables From the GOP Voter Fraud Mythology: A long history, going back to Operation Eagle Eye, launched by Republicans convinced that the 1960 presidential election was stolen from Richard Nixon.

  • Greg Sargent: Trump's latest rally rant is much more alarming and dangerous than usual:

  • Dylan Scott: The 4 House GOP scandals that could tip the 2018 midterms, explained: Scott Taylor, Chris Collins, Duncan Hunter, Rod Blum. "Democrats' 2018 message is that Republicans are corrupt."

  • Felicia Sonmez: Trump suggests that protesting should be illegal: Tempted to file this under Kavanaugh above, given that the key tweet was in response to protesters at the Senate hearings (most of whom were in fact arrested), but the first example in the article refers to him lashing out at "NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, and further examples include the "Giant Trump Baby" in London. Also related: John Wagner: Trump suggests libel laws should be changed after uproar over Woodward book. Actually, changing libel laws to allow him to sue anyone he thinks defamed him was something he campaigned on in 2016 -- something at the time I didn't think stood a chance of passing, but still revealed much about his worldview. Treating dissent and even criticism as criminal is a common trait of the class of political figures we commonly describe as dictators. Trump has long shown great sympathy for such figures, which only adds to the notion that he aspires to be a dictator as well.

  • Kay Steiger: 4 winners and 3 losers from Brett Kavanaugh's many-hour, multi-day confirmation hearings: Simpler version: "Winner: Trump. Loser: women and people of color." Another loser: "civil libertarians," although I'd read that more broadly.

  • Alex Ward: A North Korea nuclear deal looks more likely to happen now. Here's why. The sticking points seem to be matters of who does what first. Advisers like Bolton seem to have convinced Trump that the only way to get Kim to do what he says he wants to do is to keep applying maximum pressure, even though that mostly suggests that the US is the one who can't be trusted to deliver unforced promises. Take the issue of formally ending "the state of war" between the US and North Korea. What possible reason is there for Trump not to do this (and for that matter not to do it unilaterally and unconditionally)? Ward doesn't really provide reasons for optimism on that account, but that North and South are continuing to meet and negotiate in good faith does give one reason for hope. On some level, if both Koreas agree the US should have little say in the outcome.

    Also nominally on Korea, but more directly connected to matters of resistance/insubordination by Administration staff opposed to Trump's "worst inclinations," see: Fred Kaplan: Is Mattis Next Out the Door? Woodward reported that Mattis defused Trump's "Let's kill the fucking lot of them" directive on Syria by directing his staff "we're not going to do any of that." That's not the only case where Mattis has acted to restrain Trump, but this is a case where Mattis is trying to overrule Trump's directive to suspend provocative war exercises in Korea. Evidently Trump got wind of this one and publicly redressed Mattis. That's often the prelude to a purge (although Mattis, like Sessions, could be relatively hard to get rid of).

Not really news, but other links of interest:

  • Mary Hershberger: Investigating John McCain's Tragedy at Sea: Originally published in 2008, so not an obit. Before McCain got shot down over Hanoi, another confusing incident in the navy pilot's accident-prone career. Side note I didn't know:

    [McCain's] first effort at shaping that narrative received a remarkable boost when the May 14, 1973, edition of U.S. News & World Report gave him space for what is perhaps the longest article the magazine had ever run, a 12,000-word piece composed entirely of his unedited and often rambling account of his prisoner-of-war experience. Ever since, McCain has added compelling details at key points in his political career. When his stories are placed beside documented evidence from other sources, significant contradictions often emerge.

    That initial piece was written well before McCain ran for office (1982, AZ-1 House seat; in 1986 he ran for the Senate, succeeding Barry Goldwater). Every politician has a back story, but few have made that story so central to their political ambitions as McCain has.

  • Nathaniel Rich: The Most Honest Book About Climate Change Yet: A review of William T. Vollmann's magnum opus on global climate change, Carbon Ideologies, a single work published in two volumes, No Immediate Danger and No Good Alternative. "Honest" because he regards the fate of life on earth as intractably locked in.

    Most of the extensive interviews that dominate Carbon Ideologies are thus conducted with men who work in caves or pits to produce the energy we waste. If "nothing is more frightful than to see ignorance in action" (Goethe), these encounters are a waking nightmare. Oil-refinery workers in Mexico, coal miners in Bangladesh, and fracking commissioners in Colorado are united in their shaky apprehension of the environmental damage they do, not to mention the basic facts of climate change and its ramifications. "Mostly their replies came out calm and bland," Vollmann reports, though this doesn't prevent him from recording them at length, nearly verbatim. On occasion his questions do elicit a gem of accidental lyricism, as when an Indian steelworker at a UAE oil company, asked for his views on climate change, replies, "Now a little bit okay, but in future it's very danger." It's hard to improve on that.

    By the way, in What Will Donald Trump Be Remember For? Tom Engelhardt argues that the thing Trump will be longest remembered for is his contribution to the global roasting of the planet. He comes to that conclusion after a long list of the relatively stupid but trivial things Trump gets into the news cycle every day with. Trump's love affair with fossil fuels (especially "beautiful clean coal") will certainly rank as one of those "Nero fiddling while Rome burns" cases, but Engelhardt is also skipping over a harrowing number of less likely but still catastrophic breakdowns, including a major economic depression, several wars (worst case nuclear), some kind of civil war, a military coup, the end of democracy and freedom as we once knew it.

  • Maj. Danny Sjursen: The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48): A brief history of America's most nakedly imperialist war.