The Chaos President

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on March 6

Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate, and he’d be a chaos president.

– Jeb Bush, 12-15-2015

This week’s featured post is “The Peril of Potemkin Democracy“. It’s my attempt to put the Trump threat in perspective.

If you happen to be near the Lakewood Ranch development outside of Sarasota, Florida next Sunday, I’ll be speaking to the Unitarian Universalist fellowship there.

This week everybody was talking about the Flynn firing

National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned under pressure last Monday night “following reports that he misled senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the nature of talks he held with the Russian ambassador in December before he took office.”

It was later revealed that Trump had known about Flynn’s situation for weeks. What appears to have caused Flynn’s resignation/firing was that The Washington Post revealed to the public what Trump already knew.


The role of leaks from the intelligence community in Flynn’s ouster led to several cautionary articles about the unseemliness of this misuse of America’s spying apparatus. Eli Lake wrote:

In normal times, the idea that U.S. officials entrusted with our most sensitive secrets would selectively disclose them to undermine the White House would alarm those worried about creeping authoritarianism. Imagine if intercepts of a call between Obama’s incoming national security adviser and Iran’s foreign minister leaked to the press before the nuclear negotiations began? The howls of indignation would be deafening.

I judge the Flynn leaks on the same scale I use for any whistle-blowing leak: (1) Does the public-interest value of the information outweigh the inappropriateness of the source? (2) Did the leakers try to go through appropriate channels first? Here, the answers seem to be yes.

Josh Marshall:

you can’t really have any serious discussion of this question without recognizing that while these are extraordinary and in most cases unacceptable remedies, we are in an extraordinary situation. A hostile foreign power used its intelligence services to commit statutory crimes in the United States with the aim and quite possibly the effect of changing the outcome of a national election. The beneficiary’s aides and advisors were in what appears to have been active and ongoing communication with agents of that foreign power when this campaign to manipulate our elections was going on. The President has numerous financial dealings with people in and around Russia: but most of the most basic information about his finances, financials dealings and more, he refuses to disclose. The beneficiary, the President, has routinely and consistently made floridly glowing comments about the leader of the hostile foreign power and in a few specific cases taken specific actions which shift US policy to assist his country. This is not a normal situation. Even what we know is all but incomprehensible and the issue is what we don’t know. … The things that are being leaked are specific facts that are highly newsworthy and highly disturbing. They’re not stories of sexual peccadillos or things that are politically damaging but not fundamentally relevant to the work of government.

David Frum asks:

If the information about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Russians were not leaked, it would have been smothered and covered up. Congress refused to act. The Department of Justice has shown zero interest. The president’s occasional remarks about the matter carry all the conviction of O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the real killers.

What, exactly, were investigators supposed to do with their information if they did not share it with the public?


The Trump administration has two leak problems: One set of leaks comes from what is sometimes called the “Deep State”: career professionals who staff the government and have an independent sense of what their mission is. These include, for example, the leaks that seem to come from inside the intelligence agencies, like the ones that brought down Flynn. I don’t doubt that as the Trump anti-environmental policies start to take effect, we’ll see a similar wave of leaks from inside the EPA or NOAA. If you signed up with OSHA because you felt committed to keeping American workers safe, you’re likely not to be a happy camper when, say, you get instructed to ignore evidence of real danger.

But a completely different source of leaks is the Trump White House itself, which seems to have divided into factions faster than any White House since John Adams had to contend with both Thomas Jefferson as his vice president and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. A lot of the news articles we’ve seen about Trump’s behavior in the White House or his phone calls to foreign leaders most likely came from Trump’s own people.

The leader of one faction within the White House is Steve Bannon, whose previous job was running the right-wing Breitbart News. So it’s a reasonable speculation that Breitbart is now the voice of the Bannon White House faction. Vox analyzes one particular Breitbart article based on “sources close to the president”: It improbably blames Chief of Staff (and rival faction leader) Reince Preibus for the problems of the Bannon-written anti-Muslim executive order (which is currently not in effect, pending a court challenge), and says that Preibus’ job is in danger. Preibus doesn’t have a similar Pravda to do his bidding, so we don’t have a comparable response from his faction.

and Trump’s escalating war on the media

Back in January, Steve Bannon told The New York Times that the media was “the opposition party“, an opinion that Trump later echoed. This week Trump escalated with a tweet that called the NYT, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC “the FAKE NEWS media” and “the enemy of the American people”.

This flashed me back to an interview Rachel Maddow did with NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel shortly after the election. She asked for his observations of how authoritarian governments take over democracies.

If you start to hear the word “traitor” being used a lot about the opposition, that’s a red flag. If those criticisms escalate to “cancer”, that’s an even worse sign. So I think we should be listening for things like that.

It seems to me that “enemy of the American people” is a similarly bad sign.


Interesting response by CNN’s Don Lemon when a Trump supporter claimed his segment on the cost of protecting the Trump family was “fake news”. Lemon first defined fake news (“a story to intentionally deceive someone”) and explained why this story did not fit that definition. Then he admonished his panelist to stop calling stories “fake” just because he didn’t like them. (His actual point seemed to be that the story wasn’t newsworthy, which is a different thing entirely.) When the panelist went back to the “fake news” talking point, Lemon cut off the segment. “Thanks everyone. Thanks for watching. Have a great weekend.”

I’m not sure whether this is the right answer, but the media can’t go on debating obviously bogus points as if they were legitimate. That just plays into the hands of the Trumpists.


MSNBC’s Morning Joe has stopped booking Kellyanne Conway. Co-host Mika Brzezinski explained: “Every time I’ve ever seen her on television, something’s askew, off or incorrect.” And Joe Scarborough claimed she doesn’t know what she’s talking about: “She’s just saying things, just to get in front of the TV set and prove her relevance because behind the scenes — behind the scenes, she’s not in these meetings.”

The point of interviewing administration officials is to get information for your audience. But if the level of disinformation gets too high, it’s not worth it. After listening to Conway, you often have a worse idea of what’s going on than you did before.

and ObamaCare replacement is still going nowhere

For years, Republicans have kept announcing that they’ll reveal a “plan” to replace ObamaCare soon. When the promised meeting happens, though, what they present is a collection of ideas — health savings accounts, tax credits, high-risk pools — that presumably will someday make up a plan. But there is never anything detailed enough that either the CBO could determine what it will cost or that you could look at and figure out whether or not you’ll be covered. The latest event in this series happened Thursday.

Vox‘s Andrew Prokop explains what the hold-up is: five big issues that Republicans still disagree on.


Any plan to replace ObamaCare is probably also going to drastically restructure Medicaid.

but we should start paying more attention to John McCain

Like the rest of congressional Republicans, McCain has so far done little to stand up to Trump. For example, he has voted to approve all Trump’s cabinet nominees.

However, he seems to be establishing the rhetorical base to justify taking Trump on in some way. Friday, he gave a biting speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, arguing that the very idea of “the West” is in danger. He did not name Trump as the threat, but the implication was clear.

The next panel asks us to consider whether the West will survive. In recent years, this question would invite accusations of hyperbole and alarmism. Not this year. If ever there were a time to treat this question with a deadly seriousness, it is now.

The threat he identifies is not conquest from the outside; he does not paint a picture of losing a global war against Islam, for example. It is corruption from within, as the principles that define the West are allowed to erode.

From the ashes of the most awful calamity in human history [i.e., World War II]  was born what we call the West — a new, and different, and better kind of world order … one based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence, or conquest of the weak by the strong, but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for national sovereignty and independence. Indeed, the entire idea of the West is that it open to any person or any nation that honors and upholds these values.

… What would [the post-war] generation say if they saw our world today? I fear that much about it would be all-too-familiar to them, and they would be alarmed by it.

They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism.

They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims.

They would be alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.

They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.

That’s a reference to Trump’s widely condemned defense of Vladimir Putin in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. When O’Reilly challenged Trump’s statement that he respected Putin by pointing out that “he’s a killer”, Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

But what would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West, that they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without.

That’s a reference both to Brexit (which Trump applauded) and to Trump’s criticisms of NATO and the EU. When McCain says “this is what our adversaries want”, he seems to be talking more about Putin than about ISIS (neither of which is named).

By itself, such a speech means nothing. McCain could still be planning to maintain a rhetorical independence from Trump without doing anything substantive to get in his way. But I’m beginning to think he has something else in mind. If he doesn’t, he’s starting to paint himself into a corner.

and you might also be interested in

The winner of this year’s World Press Photo Contest is “The Face of Hatred”. Put yourself in the shoes of Burhan Ozbilici, the Associated Press photographer who snapped this photo. Mevlut Mert Altintas has just assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, and is still standing there with the gun in his right hand. Your immediate reaction is not to run in terror or drop to the ground or stand there paralyzed, but to take his picture.

Sometimes I look at award-winning photos and think that they’re just luck. Somebody happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s the difference between them and me. Not this time.


If you live in states that have a Democratic senator up for re-election in 2018, you’ve probably seen this ad for confirming Judge Gorsuch. As far as I know, this kind of politicization of a Court nomination is unprecedented (except for the same organization’s ads against Merrick Garland last year; I haven’t found any totals for that campaign, but they spent at least $200K in West Virginia alone). Someone should check the graves of Founding Fathers for signs of rolling; the system set up by the Constitution was intended to insulate the judiciary from politics as much as is possible in a system where power ultimately comes from the People.

The ad is part of a $10 million campaign by Judicial Crisis Network. If you’re wondering where that money comes from, good luck finding out. SourceWatch says:

JCN is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. JCN does not disclose its funders, but all of its reported revenue in 2012 and 2013 (its most recently available tax filings) came from large contributions of more than $10,000, and contributions of more than $1 million providing more than 80 percent of JCN’s total revenue in both years.

So whoever is funding this, they’re very, very rich and think that writing a check for $1 million or more to maintain the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is a good investment. You can bet they’re not doing this because they expect Trump’s nominee to stick up for the little guy.


Quincy Larson at Free Code Camp explains why you should avoid leaving the country with your smartphone or laptop: Border control officials can refuse to let you into a country unless you give up the password to your devices, at which point they’re free to vacuum up all your personal data. The U.S. might do it to a U.S. citizen before letting them come back.

That’s already started happening.

On January 30th, Sidd Bikkannavar, a US-born scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flew back to Houston, Texas from Santiago, Chile.

On his way through through the airport, Customs and Border Patrol agents pulled him aside. They searched him, then detained him in a room with a bunch of other people sleeping in cots. They eventually returned and said they’d release him if he told them the password to unlock his phone.

Bikkannavar explained that the phone belonged to NASA and had sensitive information on it, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He eventually yielded and unlocked his phone. The agents left with his phone. Half an hour later, they returned, handed him his phone, and released him.

Larson has recommendations:

When you travel internationally, you should leave your mobile phone and laptop at home. You can rent phones at most international airports that include data plans.

If you have family overseas, you can buy a second phone and laptop and leave them there at their home.

If you’re an employer, you can create a policy that your employees are not to bring devices with them during international travel. You can then issue them “loaner” laptops and phones once they enter the country.

Of course, you might say to yourself: “I don’t need to take those kinds of precautions, because nothing about me should make border agents suspicious. I’m white, Christian, native-born, and look just like a normal American.” Bookmark that thought, and retrieve it the next time you feel offended because somebody has called you “privileged”.

and let’s close with an invitation to creativity

You can generate your own photos of Trump executive orders.

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-10-52-17-am

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Comments

  • Roger Green  On February 20, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    You DO recall how terrible it was the LAST time you took off a week. If it happens again, I’m blaming YOU! 😉

  • rabbiadar  On February 20, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    I am very grateful for The Weekly Sift. Enjoy some time off, then come back and help me process the news!

  • Anonymous  On February 20, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    “So whoever is funding this, they’re very, very rich and think that writing a check for $1 million or more to maintain the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is a good investment.”

    We need campaign finance reform – big time.

  • Larry Benjamin  On February 20, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    Osbilici defines what it means to be a photographer as opposed to someone who takes pictures as a hobby. When you can say “I would rather die than miss this photo,” you deserve the title of photographer.

  • Bron D Skinner  On February 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    I have been following the Weekly Sift for a few years now. I am impressed by how frequently you are able to bring complex political and social issues into a clearer focus. There is a simple, rational discourse that you follow that I appreciate tremendously in this age of “alternative facts,” misinformation and subterfuge. You are to be congratulated. Thank you and I hope you enjoy your week off.

  • Charles  On February 22, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    A good discussion of the smartphone border crossing issue:

    http://www.mit.edu/~specter/articles/17/deniability1.html

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