Baby Driver

When toddlers play, it’s good to have a grownup in the room to supervise. But if a toddler is driving a car, it does no good to have a grownup in the passenger seat. Pretending that it’s somehow okay is the least grownup reaction possible.

– Matt Yglesias “There Never Were Any Adults in the Room

This week’s featured posts are “Is this any way to run a superpower?” and “Fantasy problems don’t have realistic solutions“.

This week everybody was talking about pulling US troops out of Syria

One of the featured posts covers the Syria/Afghanistan situation in more detail. Here I want to talk about the American politics of it.

Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation-in-protest from the Trump cabinet was a nearly unique event in US history. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter as “compelling both for what it said, and for what it didn’t say”. Asked by CNN’s Don Lemon to elaborate on what wasn’t in the letter, Clapper explained:

Typically in a letter like this, there is an expression of what an honor it has been to serve in this administration and under your leadership, or words to that effect. That’s typically what you put in a resignation letter. That’s what I put in mine when I resigned in the last administration. That wasn’t there.

Instead, Mattis’ letter begins with:

I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals.

ends with

I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.

and spares not a single word to praise Trump or his administration.

Trump, of course, had to shoot back.

We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S., and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!

So now Trump has booted Mattis sooner than his resignation would have become effective. The new acting SecDef is Patrick Shanahan, who has been Deputy SecDef for over a year. He’s a former Boeing executive whose only previous experience was in making and selling weapons, not fighting wars or managing alliances.


This is another area where our expectations of Trump continue to diminish. At first, he was supposed to have a unique ability to get “the best people” to enter government service. Then, we realized that Trump himself was impulsive and ignorant, and a lot of the other people his administration were too, but at least there would be a few “adults in the room” to keep him from doing anything too crazy. Now Mattis and Kelly, the last of the so-called adults, are leaving. But Trump remains in office.


Some are speculating that this will be a turning point in Republican support for Trump. But I’ve heard that prediction before. The capacity of elected officials like Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell to tut-tut about Trump one day and then protect him from any accountability the next seems limitless.

and the government shutdown and the Wall

About a quarter of the federal government shut down at midnight on Saturday morning. I’m guessing this is going to be a very long shutdown, for the following reason: The whole point of a shutdown is to shock the public, because each side is counting on the public to unleash its outrage on the other. As soon as it’s clear which way the public is trending, the disfavored side usually surrenders.

By now, though, a shutdown just isn’t shocking any more. We’ve all seen too many of them. So in order to get the same effect, this one is going to have to last long enough to seem unique. I predict it will last at least until Nancy Pelosi becomes Speaker, and maybe well past that.


Let’s be clear how we got to a shutdown: Congress had worked out a deal, which the Senate passed by voice vote because Trump had agreed to it.

Vice President Mike Pence told GOP senators earlier this week Trump would sign the Senate’s stopgap with the $1.3 billion for the fencing — that’s why many Republican senators headed home after the chamber finished its pre-holiday business.

Then various voices on Fox News and talk radio got upset, so Trump reneged and demanded funding for the Wall.  So here we are.

Whether you like the idea of a wall or not — I think it’s stupid, as I explain in one of the featured posts — if Trump was going to insist on funding for the wall, he should have made that part of his negotiations all along. Whatever compromise the two sides eventually agree to could have been worked out with days to spare.


If Trump is going to stand by his demand for funding the Wall, then there’s only one way this can resolve: After a deal was struck, he added a new demand. So he’s going to have to give up something in exchange. So far, I haven’t heard what that might be.


In The Art of the Deal, walking away at the last minute is a tactic for getting concessions. Trump’s advice in that book focuses on getting the biggest possible advantage in a single deal, and doesn’t have much to say about establishing trusting relationships that can benefit both parties over the long run. He’s like the car salesman who “wins” by overcharging you for a lemon that one time, but then you and your friends never deal with him again. He’s not at all like the guy who sells you a car every few years and then eventually sells cars to your kids.

That’s why Trump has been so bad at negotiating with Congress or with other countries. Those are ongoing relationships, not one-time deals where you walk away laughing as soon as the contracts are signed.


I know it should never be shocking to notice that Trump has lied, but his abuse of Ronald Reagan’s memory is particularly striking.

Even President Ronald Reagan tried for 8 years to build a Border Wall, or Fence, and was unable to do so. Others also have tried. We will get it done, one way or the other!

Here’s what Reagan actually said:

Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back.

and John Roberts’ rebuff to the administration’s asylum policy

When a court first blocked the new policy of insisting that asylum seekers had to apply at a designated border entry point, Trump denounced it as the work of an “Obama judge“, as if it were Obama’s presidency that should be considered illegitimate.

Now the Supreme Court has backed up that ruling. The 5-4 majority included Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Ruth Bader Ginsberg voting from her hospital bed.

As the “Obama judge” noted in his ruling, the law could not be more clear.

Congress has clearly commanded in the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] that any alien who arrives in the United States, irrespective of that alien’s status, may apply for asylum – “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”

So it’s the four most conservative judges (including Brett Kavanaugh) who have some explaining to do. Why are they substituting their own political views for the law?


The emoluments lawsuit has hit a snag: The case was set to go into the discovery phase, which would allow Democratic state attorney generals to subpoena records from The Trump Organization. But an appeals court has halted proceedings while it reviews the judge’s rulings that allowed the case to proceed. It’s not dead, but we’ll see.

So far, I have not heard any serious argument that Trump is not violating the Constitution. He obviously is. The issue is more whether the courts have the authority to stop him and who has the legal standing to ask them to.

and you also might be interested in …

Trump’s obstruction of justice continues. CNN reports that Trump has been asking Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker “why more wasn’t being done to control prosecutors in New York” who brought charges against Michael Cohen and have implied that Trump also committed crimes.

It’s important not to lose sight of how unusual this is. Presidents are not supposed to talk to the attorney general at all about specific cases. The idea that Trump is pressuring Whitaker to intervene in a case where he is directly involved is way off the scale for any post-Watergate administration of either party.


If your Christmas or year-end process involves giving money to charity, Vox has some advice: Your money goes farther in poor countries. Public health programs can save a lot of lives. And nobody understands the needs of poor people in Uganda better than poor people in Uganda, so why not send money directly to them?


Congrats to Harvard for netting Parkland survivor and anti-NRA activist David Hogg for its freshman class. Hogg plans to major in political science.


Trump’s shamelessness about being caught in a lie has prompted the Washington Post’s fact-checkers to create a new category: the Bottomless Pinocchio, for false claims that keep getting repeated no matter how often they’re debunked.

The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: The claims must have received three or four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times. Twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong.

So far 15 Bottomless Pinocchios have been awarded, all to Trump. The man is in a class by himself.

and let’s close with some Christmasy things

Science fiction writer John Scalzi managed to score an interview with one seriously hard-working individual: Santa’s lawyer. Delivering packages across international borders, entering people’s homes in the dead of night, keeping files on who’s been naughty or nice, managing a workforce of magical creatures … there are a ton of legal issues here. Much thought has to go into keeping Santa solvent and free.

And if you’re looking for some good Christmas Eve listening, let me recommend something that never turns up on Muzak at the mall: Stan Freberg’s “Green Chri$tma$“.

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Comments

  • weeklysift  On December 24, 2018 at 11:47 am

    One more thing: My Christmas Eve column is up on the UU World website.

  • Xan  On December 26, 2018 at 9:47 am

    It is absolutely irresponsible to encourage especially small donors to give internationally by “giving directly to [for instance] Uganda. Your money will NOT go farther when giving abroad; I don’t know where this myth comes from. But it will go farther, and more directly, to people in need when given in your *local* community to local needs managed by local charities, especially small and mid-sized ones.

    • WTS  On December 26, 2018 at 2:42 pm

      Can you say more about that? To me it seems logical that a dollar goes farther in a poorer country. For instance, if I travel to a poorer country I’ll pay less for everything than if I travel to a wealthier country. So in my mind I think it must be similar for residents. Also maybe it takes something cheaper to save a life there, like a bike so a doctor can get around, whereas here it might take something more expensive, like addiction counseling. But what is logical is not always what is true, so what do you know that I don’t?

      The article did emphasize preferentially giving to smaller charities over bigger ones.

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