Tag Archives: Trump administration

Step Around the Benghazi Trap

As the Trump scandals deepen, Democrats should learn from Republican mistakes: If you let your expectations get too far ahead of what’s known, confirmation bias can lead you into an a universe of alternative facts.


A few days before last November’s election, I saw a guy wearing an anti-Hillary t-shirt with the slogan “Benghazi: I will never forget!”. And it made me wonder: Of the things he will never forget about Benghazi, how many are imaginary? Will he always remember, for example, the stand-down order that was never given? Or that Clinton’s response to four American deaths was to ask “What difference does it make?

Benghazi was a real event, but eventually it got surrounded by a cloud of virtual events conjured up by conspiracy theorists. The virtual events — did you hear that Obama knew the attack was coming and intentionally did nothing? — stick in the mind so much better than the real ones. I suspect they’re the ones that guy (and the millions like him) will always remember.

Republicans went certifiably insane about Benghazi. When seven separate investigations failed to verify their wildest accusations against Obama and Clinton, they did the obvious thing: spent millions of tax dollars on an eighth one that also found nothing, in the vain hope that someday the same evidence would start saying something different.

Last week, a commenter on this blog asked how Democrats will know if we’ve gone down a similar rabbit-hole about Trump and Russia. I replied that it was way too early to make such a comparison, because we haven’t even completed one investigation of Trump/Russia, much less started our eighth. But the longer I thought about it, the more I wondered if there wasn’t something worth thinking about here: It may have taken four years and eight investigations for their Benghazi insanity to play out, but when exactly did Republicans start making the fatal mistake that eventually drove them insane?

Early days, I think. Right about where we are now.

And here’s what I think the fatal mistake was: convincing themselves that they already knew what had happened and how everything was going to play out. Within days or weeks, they knew that this was the big one, the scandal that was finally going to bring Obama down. Obama and Clinton had done something horrible here, even if nobody was sure exactly what it was. The point of investigating was to find the horrible thing they did, not to determine whether it existed. Any investigators who failed to find something bad enough to end both of their careers — and maybe send them to jail as a bonus — just hadn’t looked hard enough.

The point of me bringing this up isn’t to pooh-pooh the seriousness of what we’re finding out about Trump, or to suggest that an investigation shouldn’t be pursued with all possible vigor. I think Trump and a number of his people are acting like they’re guilty as hell. And the seriousness of the possibilities is undeniable: One of the determining factors in the 2016 election might have been a conspiracy between the winning candidate and a hostile foreign power. An unsavory Trump-Russia connection might go back decades, to Trump getting bailed out of his terrible investment decisions by money that Russian oligarchs needed to launder. Or maybe Trump campaign officials like Manafort and Flynn were Russian agents paid to manipulate the useful idiot who was their candidate.

Those possibilities can’t just be left out there for people to wonder about. If there’s even a tiny chance that one of them is true, a major investigation is necessary.

It’s possible that all this will come out quickly, in months or even weeks. Maybe Flynn or somebody will flip on Trump and produce a smoking gun that will either force him to resign or convince reluctant Republicans in Congress that they need to impeach him. Maybe Pence is in it up to his eyeballs and he’ll be forced out too.

It’s possible. But at this point, I don’t actually know any of those things. Trump does a lot of stuff I don’t understand, so he could be acting guilty for some ridiculous reason that isn’t illegal at all. Remember how adamant he was about his inaugural crowd being bigger than Obama’s, or how he didn’t really lose the popular vote? Maybe the Big Thing he’s hiding is some similarly ego-diminishing fact that anybody else would just own up to. Maybe the stuff that looks like a giant conspiracy is actually made up of dozens of unrelated instances of stupidity and incompetence. Maybe the corruption being covered up is ordinary money-grubbing by lower-level Trumpists, and doesn’t have anything to do with high-level treason.

That’s all possible too.

We need to find out. So we need to keep paying attention. All the avenues of investigation should be pursued as vigorously as possible, and everybody needs to remain vigilant against attempts to change the subject or derail the inquiries. We need to stay on guard against the worst: If the tension keeps ratcheting up inside the White House, eventually somebody is bound to suggest a Reichstag Fire — a real or fake attack on America that is supposed to make us circle the wagons around our Leader.

Or our enemies could decide that now, while the country is divided and so many of us are inclined to disbelieve anything our president says, is exactly the right time to launch a real attack.

As Americans, we need to keep the pressure on our elected representatives to take all this seriously. We need to stay ready to protest in the streets if it all goes wrong, just as Tunisians and Egyptians did to chase their corrupt leaders into retirement.

But while we’re making sure we’ll be geared up for whatever happens, we also need to make sure we’re staying in touch with reality, and that we’re maintaining the separation between what we know, what we suspect, and what we’re getting ready for just in case. We can’t let ourselves live in a speculative future where everything we’ve always suspected about Trump turns out to be true, and everyone who supported him finally has to admit that we were right.

If you get too attached to that future, you’ll most likely miss the turn when reality decides to go some other way. As the facts unfold, you’ll only see the ones that point in the direction you want to go. That’s a well-documented cognitive failing called confirmation bias. It’s not a conservative or liberal thing, it’s a human thing. Unless you’re some particularly well-designed artificial intelligence, you’re susceptible to it.

It’s already starting to happen in certain circles. Things that might eventually turn out to be true are being reported as if they are inevitably going to happen, or maybe have already happened. (Did you hear that Trump has already been indicted?)

It’s very satisfying to respond to Trump’s alternate reality (where his inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s, his electoral college margin was historically large, only fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote, and no politician — not even one who got assassinated, like Kennedy or Lincoln — has ever been treated so unfairly) with an anti-Trump alternate reality.

But as boring as it can be sometimes, we need to hang onto real reality. It sometimes takes a while to manifest itself, but in the long run real reality has a power that we want on our side.

It’s tempting to believe that we already know what’s going to happen: We know what James Comey is going to testify to, we know that Michael Flynn and/or Paul Manafort are going to flip on Trump and what they’re going to say; we know where the money trail is going to lead; and so on. We’re just waiting for that inevitable future to arrive, when Trump is ridden out of town on a rail.

But I don’t know any of that stuff, not yet. So I’m going to have to listen to the witnesses as they testify. I’m going to have to read the investigators’ reports as they come out.

Trump’s defenders are telling us that because we don’t already know that he did something wrong, we shouldn’t be investigating. The answer to that isn’t that we’re investigating because we do already know. The reason to investigate is because we don’t know. Trump’s defenders — other than possibly Trump himself and a small circle around him — don’t know either.

We should move forward, but with full knowledge of the uncertainties and ambiguities. That’s harder than moving forward with full certainty of where you’re going. But in the long run, it will keep you sane.

What is impeachment for?

Before Democrats can talk responsibly about impeaching Trump, we need to state some standards we’d be willing to apply to a Democratic president.


One of the more ridiculous quotes of the Obama era came from Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan. It was the summer after Obama’s re-election and Bentivolio’s constituents were wondering about impeachment, like you do when you think the wrong guy won the election.

The Congressman responded that “it would be a dream come true” to impeach Obama, and claimed he had challenged lawyers to “tell me how I can impeach the President of the United States.” But the lawyers uncovered a pesky little problem: “Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughing stock if you’ve submitted the bill to impeach the president.”

Damn. You need evidence that he did something wrong. There’s always a catch somewhere.

The cheapening of impeachment. The mood was very different in 1973, when the House Judiciary Committee began investigating impeachment against President Nixon. Up to that point, there had been only one serious presidential impeachment case in American history, against Andrew Johnson in 1868. No one had come out of that affair looking good, and it made both sides cautious a century later. [1]

So the Nixon proceedings had an air of solemnity: History was watching, and whatever you did now would be what you were remembered for. Democrats, who held the majority in both houses in spite of Nixon’s 1972 landslide, bent over backwards to give Nixon at least the appearance of a fair hearing; Republicans likewise worked hard to create the impression that they were taking their duties seriously. Ultimately, it was three Republicans — Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes — who went to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to resign.

A lot of Democrats had hated Nixon for a long time, but nobody crowed about “a dream come true”. Impeachment wasn’t something you started talking about as soon as your side lost. It was a constitutional last resort, and you didn’t break that glass unless it was really an emergency.

Impeachment still required a high bar in 1987, when Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran-Contra was a big deal: A dozen major figures in the Reagan administration were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. [2] President Reagan apologized to the American people on national television: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Congress concluded that Reagan either knew about the wrong-doing or should have known. But he was not impeached.

It was Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-1999 that changed all the rules. For Nixon, it was thought to be important that the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, be a political independent who had voted for Nixon; that made it clear the President wasn’t being railroaded. But Clinton’s first prosecutor was a Republican (Robert Fiske), who was replaced mid-investigation by a more partisan Republican (Ken Starr). Starr published a report emphasizing the most salacious aspects of the case in lurid language, and frequently leaked sensational details to the press.

Throughout the process, the votes on impeachment were very close to party-line — which meant that the ultimate result was predetermined: The Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton by majority vote, but conviction in the Senate required a 2/3rds majority, which couldn’t happen without convincing a significant number of Democrats. Clinton served out his full two terms.

George W. Bush could have been impeached over violations of the Convention Against Torture or for deceptions in the process leading to the Iraq War. A resolution was introduced in the House, but it died in committee. The full House never voted on it.

Republicans often talked about impeaching President Obama, but their efforts never passed the laugh test: Like Bentivolio, they failed to come up with a plausible charge, much less assemble evidence to support it.

Standards. It’s easy to be a partisan hypocrite about impeachment. If the question is just “Do I want to get rid of this guy?”, then I’ll want to impeach presidents of the other party and defend presidents of my own. And after the plainly partisan nature of the Clinton impeachment, it’s tempting for Democrats to return tit for tat.

But cheap impeachments are bad for democracy. An election should mean something; it should make a decision that is not easily reversed. On the other hand, the Founders put impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. If Democrats are going to start another one any time soon, we owe it to the Republic to form a clear idea of what impeachment is for, and to state a non-partisan standard we’d be willing to stand by the next time a president from our side is in office.

The standards for impeachment are listed in the Constitution, but the statement is terse:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Treason and bribery we all sort of understand, but it’s the “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that has been so maddeningly vague over the years.

A prime example is obstruction of justice — what Trump may have done when he fired Jim Comey. Obstruction was an impeachable offense when Nixon did it, so Republicans claimed it as an impeachable offense for Clinton. Democrats thought you needed more context; not all obstructions should count the same: Clinton was accused of inducing Monica Lewinsky to lie about their affair; Nixon was accused of doing a long list of things — conspiring with others, concocting cover stories, destroying evidence, asking the CIA to interfere with the FBI — to block the investigation of a burglary intended to help his re-election campaign. It didn’t seem fair to lump the two in the same category and proceed from there.

Now that it’s a Republican in the dock, expect the parties to switch places: Democrats will insist that obstruction-as-impeachable-offense is now well established; Republicans will want to say, “Wait a minute.”

If we’re not all just going to run to our respective partisan banners, we need think this through from the beginning.

What is impeachment for? The Founders knew that occasionally the voters would screw up. Bad presidents were inevitable, which is why John Adams talked about forming “a government of laws, and not of men“. The Constitutional system created multiple centers of power that could check and balance each other. The hope was that the country would be strong enough to ride out a bad presidency.

So the ordinary way to get rid of a bad president is to wait for his term to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment is only for cases where that solution just isn’t adequate.

That’s why treason and bribery are specifically mentioned. If a president is just bad at his job, you can usually live with that until the next election. (After all, the country survived eight years of George W. Bush.) But if the power of the office is being controlled by someone else — by a hostile foreign power (treason) or a wealthy special interest (bribery) — then we really can’t wait that long. (That’s even more true today than in the 1700s, because of the immediacy of nuclear weapons.) So I interpret “other high crimes and misdemeanors” as “other offenses too urgent to put off until the next election”.

The most obvious offense that you can’t put off until the next election is anything that subverts the next election. So if a president is using his or her power to alter the political system — like burglarizing the other party’s files or making deals with foreign powers to hack their computer systems — that also should be impeachable. [3] Other things that could be impeachable in the same way are shutting down hostile newspapers, or preventing legal voters from casting their ballots.

Since the separation of powers is what we’re counting on to keep a bad president in line, anything that usurps the power of the other branches has to be impeachable, unless the breach can be repaired some less drastic way. [4]

Along the same lines, the impeachment process itself has to be protected. So obstruction of justice needs to be an impeachable offense, if the obstructed investigation concerns an impeachable offense. [5]

Finally, there are offenses that have no other enforcement mechanism. For example, violations of the Emoluments Clause, which there is a good case Trump is guilty of. Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter wrote: “The only remedy for a serious violation of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment.” [6]

Application to Trump. Under these standards, it seems obvious to me that the House Judiciary Committee should be investigating impeachment, because there are viable accusations of impeachable offenses: most obviously the emoluments, but possibly more directly dangerous things. Any collusion with Russia to hack the Democrats would be impeachable, as well as obstruction of justice if it was intended to shelter allies who did collude. (Whether Trump was involved directly in the collusion wouldn’t matter; if he later suspected what his associates did and tried to protect them, that would be impeachable.)

At this point, whether I would support an impeachment vote in the House or conviction by the Senate would depend on what those investigations turned up. But there are definitely things to investigate.


[1] Johnson had been the slave-owning Democrat Lincoln put on his ticket in the name of national unity. After the assassination, he was an outsider dealing with Lincoln’s overwhelmingly Republican Congress.

If you’ve ever wondered why vice presidents are such yes-men, Johnson’s example explains why. When the VP has very different views than the president, it’s practically an invitation to assassins. John Wilkes Booth really did succeed in changing the direction of the country.

[2] Both were pardoned by President Bush before they served jail time.

[3] By contrast, Clinton’s extra-marital affair was just embarrassing, not a threat to the Republic. He finished his term, and there was a peaceful transfer of power to the other party after the next election.

[4] Republicans claimed that Obama’s executive orders on immigration usurped the power of Congress. So they sued, won their case, and Obama obeyed the judgment of the courts. But if Obama had instead said, “Screw the judges, I’m going to do what I want.”, then impeachment would have been Congress’ only recourse.

[5] That leaves out the obstruction charge against Clinton, but creates an interesting test scenario: What if the reason Trump wanted to stop Comey’s investigation wasn’t that he himself had done anything wrong, but to prevent Comey from catching his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was guilty of some financial chicanery? I’m leaning towards the idea that Trump should be prosecuted for that after leaving office, but not impeached.

[6] Naturally, if the money the President receives from a foreign government is in return for some favor, then it’s already impeachable as a bribe.

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.

Donnie in the Room

(with apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer)

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for Republicans that day.
They’d promised for six years that they’d repeal the ACA.
But when the caucus gathered, and they looked from man to man
They knew that not a one of them had ever had a plan.

“I’d counted on a veto,” said a rep from Tennessee.
“The blame Obama always took would fall on Hillary.
Then Pennsylvania went for Trump, and Michigan the same.
And now we run the government, we can’t just play a game.”

A colleague from Wyoming was equally concerned.
Shaking his head sadly, he stated what he’d learned.
“My hopes from the beginning always had one little flaw.
I’d pictured making speeches, never thought I’d write a law.”

Neither had the others, though they often said they would.
They knew what programs shouldn’t do, but not the things they should.
Then said a man from Texas, “We’ll never have success.
We got so used to saying No, we’ll never get to Yes.”

“I know,” said Ryan hopefully, “that’s sometimes how it feels.
But Donnie wrote the book about the art of making deals.
I know agreement’s hard to find, and deadlines closely loom.
But we can still succeed if we get Donnie in the room.”

Oh Donnie! Clever Donnie! How everyone agreed.
The plan that he campaigned on was just the one they’d need.
It ended it all the mandates! It set the markets free!
And still it covered everyone, from sea to shining sea!

“It offers better treatment,” noted one committee chair.
“And cheaper,” said another, “I know cause I was there.
You should have heard the cheering. I thought the roof would fall.
And Mexico will pay for it! No, wait, that was the wall.”

But just how would he do it? That wasn’t in their notes.
It wasn’t in the speeches that he made while seeking votes.
It wasn’t on his website, and they recognized with gloom.
They’d never reproduce it without Donnie in the room.

So Ryan checked the White House, but Donnie was away.
He wasn’t in Trump Tower, and he hadn’t been all day.
Ivanka took his message, “Call me when you can.
We can’t repeal ObamaCare without your TrumpCare plan.”

When the President returned his call, he sounded tired and mean,
As he contemplated bogey from the bunker on fifteen.
“Write whatever bill you want. I really couldn’t tell.
Content doesn’t matter, Paul. It’s all in how you sell.”

“But what about the plan you had, the one in the campaign?”
“I only planned to have a plan, that’s no cause to complain.
Grasp this opportunity, and you’ll know what to do.
I sold all the voters, now you get to come through!”

So Ryan then picked up his pen, and wrote a plan so good
It didn’t do a single thing that Donnie said it would.
And as the caucus read it, they all wanted to vote No,
Both from the left, and from the right, and from the CBO.

The Speaker counted noses, and he always came up short.
And for the ones who criticized, he had no good retort.
But Ryan still was smiling as he sorted hateful mail.
For Donnie, clever Donnie, would soon complete the sale.

Trump was back in Washington with all his awesome charm.
He flattered and he compromised and twisted by the arm.
“Those whip counts are fake news,” he said, “we’ve got the votes and more.
Everyone will back me when we take it to the floor.”

Oh, somewhere in a favored land, the people get their way,
And illness leads to treatment, even if you cannot pay.
And somewhere leaders pass the law that makes their promise real.
But there’s mourning in the caucus, Donnie could not close the deal.


Afterward: Why Casey? In my generation of Americans (I’m 60) it was hard to get through school without at some point running into the poem “Casey at the Bat” written in 1888 by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. Casey, then, is iconic American figure. Carried away by his own myth and the adulation of his fans, he sets up a dramatic situation in which he can’t deliver the appropriate conclusion. (Rather than hit the game-winning home run that the poem seems to be leading up to, he strikes out.) The parallel to Trump the Great Negotiator seemed obvious to me, which is why I used the cadence and a few phrases from “Casey at the Bat” in this poem.

The Peril of Potemkin Democracy

Trump doesn’t have to be Hitler to bring an end to the Republic.


One of the most difficult puzzles of the Trump administration is figuring out which dystopian scenario to worry about. Depending on who you listen to, everything Trump does is a feint meant to misdirect us away from the main threat, which is somewhere else.

Maybe Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts“, Stephen Miller’s assertion that the president’s power “will not be questioned“, or the president’s own declaration that CNN and the other mainstream news sources are “enemies of the American People” are assaults on the fundamental basis of democratic governance, or maybe they’re shiny objects intended to distract the press from digging into Trump’s radical appointments. Or maybe putting a buffoon like Rick Perry in charge of our nuclear energy programs is itself meant to split Congress on partisan lines so that neither party will get around to investigating Trump’s relationship with Russia. Maybe Russia is a red herring, and we ought to be paying attention to all the ways Trump and his cronies are setting themselves up to profit from his presidency. Or maybe the profiteering is small potatoes next to the alt-right influence of Steve Bannon, whose prophecy of a global war with Islam might be self-fulfilling if Islamophobic policies like the Muslim ban recruit enough young people into terrorism. Or maybe the Muslim ban is just a stalking horse meant to produce a clash with the judiciary, which Trump hopes to crush in the ensuing constitutional crisis.

I could keep going. Like a comic-book villain, Trump seems to be advancing towards the Apocalypse in all directions at once. Does that mean all roads need to be guarded equally? Or are all but one or two of the threats just distractions intended to split opposition forces? Is each proposal just the first step on a long march towards tyranny? Or is Trump like any other new president, checking off boxes on his list of campaign promises and hoping his various constituencies will be satisfied with a few symbolic baubles, so he can eventually focus on the things he really cares about? And what are those things?

Uncertainty of threat leads to uncertainty of response. Should we focus on throwing Trump’s allies out of Congress in 2018, or will that be too little too late? Right now, should we be calling our congresspeople? Marching in the streets? Planning our escape to Canada or Sweden? Or stockpiling arms for the inevitable civil war? Is paranoia making you worry too much? Or is denial making you too complacent?

A key point in Trumpian strategy is to keep your opponents rattled, and in that he is definitely succeeding. Probably the best line in SNL’s People’s Court skit wasn’t trying to be funny at all. The judge says: “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” Lots of us do.

So, acknowledging the uncertainties and the twin risks of paranoia and complacency, let’s see if we unrattle ourselves and focus our concern in the right places.

Why do people do what they do? This observation isn’t terribly deep, but it does help organize my analysis: What people do is always a combination of what they intend and the opportunities they happen across. For example, some people are in the careers they’ve pictured since they were kids, while others went wherever the jobs were when they graduated. Two people might work across a desk from each other, but one got there through a long-term plan and the other happened into it.

World leaders are the same way: They do some things because that’s why they set out to become world leaders in the first place. They do other things because the opportunity presents itself or some situation thrusts itself upon them. Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society because that’s what he always wanted to do; he saw himself as a protege of FDR, so he wanted to be remembered as the president who completed the New Deal. But his response to an unanticipated challenge also made him the Vietnam War president.

So there are two parts to figuring out what to fear from Trump. First, what drives him, so that he will set out to make it happen? And second, where are the opportunities he might try to exploit?

Drives. Let me start by saying that I’ve never met Donald Trump, so all my opinions about him come at a distance. But at the same time, he has been in the public eye for decades and hasn’t exactly hidden his personality, so I’m not just shooting blind.

My take on Trump is that his drives are all personal, and he has no fixed political goals at all. This is the biggest reason why comparisons to Hitler are misguided. Hitler was ideological. Any unscrupulous German politician might have opportunistically used anti-Semitism to rabble-rouse. But Hitler was so identified with it that he carried out the Final Solution in secret, and speeded it up as the war began to go badly. He seemed haunted by the idea that he might lose power before he finished his genocide. Similarly, he was always planning to attack Russia; the German people needed to expand in the east at the expense of the racially inferior Slavs.

You’ll search in vain for any similar fixed political goals, good or bad, in Trump. He’s been both pro- and anti-abortion. He’s been a libertine and the candidate of the Religious Right. He was for the Iraq War until he decided he had always been against it. During the campaign, his policy prescriptions were all over the map: The government spends too much, but should start a massive infrastructure project. It should both get out of healthcare and make sure everybody gets covered. He is simultaneously a hawk and an isolationist, a champion of both the working stiff and the billionaire who keeps wages low.

One reason Congress is so frozen at the moment is that even after face-to-face meetings where public pandering can be put aside, Ryan and McConnell still have no idea what Trump really wants them to do. Even ObamaCare repeal — which every Republican from Trump on down pledged to do on Day 1 — is frozen, largely because Trump has not committed himself. He has left Congress to face the real-life difficulties of healthcare, while he floats vaguely above them, ready to tweet out his wrath if Congress’ program doesn’t fulfill his impossible promises.

But Trump is a bundle of personal drives: He wants to be the center of attention, to be admired and idolized. He needs to win, to never be wrong, and to be better than whoever people might compare him to. Fame and TV ratings and crowds are a few ways he measures his success, but the biggest is money and the appearance of money.

Politics is just another game that he can win, and so prove his superiority. And if being president also makes him a lot of money, that’s a double win. Everything else is just a move in that game. Does he hate Muslims or Mexicans? Not really, I think. But a lot of people do, and they’ll cheer for him if he says and does anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican stuff.

While he is not ideologically racist, he is favorably inclined towards any argument that justifies his own superiority. In practice, that can sometimes lead to the same result. Sexism, I believe, runs a little deeper: Women are simultaneously individuals to be dominated as well as chips in his competition with other men. Being shown up grates on him, but being shown up by a woman is doubly galling.

What I don’t see in him is an urge to remake society in his own image. He has no vision like a thousand-year Reich, a new Soviet man, or anything else that would lead to a micro-managed totalitarian system.

The opportunity that doesn’t exist. Even if Trump didn’t intend to go there, you might still imagine him opportunistically drifting into a Hitler-shaped or Stalin-shaped hole in American society. I firmly believe that there is no such hole. The 21st-century authoritarian model is quite different (as we’ll discuss below).

Germany in 1933 and Russia in 1917 were both countries in great economic distress, dealing with the aftermath of a humiliating defeat in war. Both had nostalgia for a former era when a strong ruler was firmly in charge.

Trump’s appeal is based on a dim echo of that situation. Many Americans are disappointed in their economic prospects, but compared to Depression-era Germany, few are desperate. (Wondering whether your salary will ever justify your student loans is a world away from wondering what bread will cost next week.) America’s persistent inability to wipe out enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria is frustrating, but doesn’t compare to Russia’s or Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.  Trump’s rhetoric is nostalgic, but the leaders of those warmly-recalled eras were grandfatherly men like Eisenhower or Reagan, not iron-fisted czars or kaisers.

Trump has many fans, but Trumpism runs shallow compared to Hitlerism. In 1933, virtually every part of German society had its own Nazi movement eager to take power. In 2017, it’s hard to picture what a Trumpist takeover of the universities or of California would even mean, much less who would do it or how. The difficulty Trump is having staffing his administration is a symptom of this shallowness. He won with 46% of the vote, after all, and many who voted for him were not happy about it.

The appeal of Potemkin democracy. While America as a nation is not experiencing the kind of despair and defeat that leads to totalitarianism, many groups within America have seen a long-term decline in their influence and status, with no end in sight. Many members of these groups are deeply nostalgic, and prior to Trump’s election felt the kind of hopelessness that yearns for radical change.

These are the people I described in 2012 in “The Distress of the Privileged“: whites, men, conservative Christians, native-born English-speakers, and so on. These groups have never been oppressed in America and face no prospect of it, but they used to dominate society to an extent that they no longer do. That relative loss of power feels like persecution, even if in reality it is nothing more than a loss of privilege. [1]

But many of them experience that pseudo-persecution intensely, and believe it is being thrown in their faces constantly: when their doctrines are no longer taught or their prayers recited in public schools; when they have to compete in the workplace on near-equal terms with blacks and immigrants and women; when courts take the side of gay couples against the Christians who want to discriminate against them; when they express their distress in public and do not see their problems move immediately to the top of the agenda; when history classes call attention to the flaws of their heroes, or to the contributions of members of other groups; and on many other occasions. Those who look for these insults to their pride, and seek out media that highlights and exaggerates them, can find something every day.

These are the people who make up the bulk of Trump’s base, and who will be willing to watch democracy crumble if it allows them to regain the privileges they believe are rightfully theirs. While the extreme edge of this group contains open white supremacists, theocratic Dominionists, and even self-proclaimed Nazis, for the most part its members are not that radical: They’re happy with an American-style democracy as long as they’re comfortably in the majority and the elected government favors them. That’s what they’re nostalgic for.

But as they have sunk towards minority status, more extreme methods have begun to appeal: suppressing other voters in the guise of preventing “voter fraud”, gerrymandering legislative districts so that their minority of votes can dominate Congress and the state legislatures, shutting down immigration from people not like them, suppressing protest with police violence, and so on.

For the most part, their ideal America would be a Potemkin democracy. It would have the appearance of free institutions: elections, media not directly controlled by the government, opposition politicians not in jail, and so on. But the outcomes of those elections would never be in doubt, and democratic methods would never be sufficient to achieve equality for non-whites, non-Christians, or those that white Christians disapprove of (like gays).

The autocracy model that works. In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Frum described how democracy slipped away in 21st-century countries like Hungary, South Africa, and Venezuela. The Washington Post paints a similar (if less fully developed) picture of the year-old populist government in Poland.

What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example—and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.

The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.

In Poland:

In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place — one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.

In the land of Law and Justice, anti-intellectualism is king. Polish scientists are aghast at proposed curriculum changes in a new education bill that would downplay evolution theory and climate change and add hours for “patriotic” history lessons. In a Facebook chat, a top equal rights official mused that Polish hotels should not be forced to provide service to black or gay customers. After the official stepped down for unrelated reasons, his successor rejected an international convention to combat violence against women because it appeared to argue against traditional gender roles.

The national broadcasting network has lost much of its independence, and the Catholic media outlets are happy with the new regime, so the overall news coverage is positive. Cosmopolitan Warsaw is dumbstruck, but in the countryside the new government is quite popular. Some say its economic policies — subsidizing couples with children and lowering the retirement age — aren’t sound in the long term, but facts and numbers aren’t making much of an impact on the public debate.

The ultimate model of a 21st-century autocrat, of course, is Vladimir Putin, whose praises Trump often sings. Putin’s situation gives him many advantages that Trump lacks: Pre-Putin Russia in many ways resembled the pre-totalitarian societies I discussed earlier, with extreme economic distress, national pride wounded by defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of its Soviet empire, and nostalgia for past dictators. But even as Putin becomes (by some accounts) the world’s richest individual, and as his hold on government is increasingly unassailable, Russia continues to have many of the trappings of democracy. There are elections, even if it’s hard to participate in them. [2] Some limited media criticism is tolerated, though sufficiently annoying critics do sometimes drop dead under suspicious circumstances. Putin even respected Russia’s presidential term-limit law, stepping into the Prime Minister’s role for a term to let someone else serve as a figurehead president.

Frum sums up:

Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.

First steps. It’s not hard to find steps Trump has already taken down the Potemkin democracy path. As often as he verbally attacks CNN, there is virtually no chance of troops seizing its studios in a totalitarian coup. But Jared Kushner has already met with a high executive of CNN’s corporate master, Time Warner, to criticize CNN’s coverage of the new administration. According to The Wall Street Journal, he called out two commentators by name: Van Jones (a black) and Ana Navarro (a Nicaraguan immigrant). The implied threat is all too obvious: Billions of dollars hang on whether the Trump administration approves Time Warner’s proposed merger with AT&T.

There is no need for Trump critics like Jones or Navarro to wind up in Guantanamo. It is sufficient if he can get them shunted off to media outlets that only liberals or people of color pay attention to.

Similarly, Trump has talked about expanding the scope of libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations. Melania is already suing one, using the lawyer that Peter Thiel used to kill Gawker. The point, apparently, is not to recover damages, but to put critics out of business.

Under the guise of “reforming the bureaucracy” or “draining the swamp”, Trump seeks to populate government service with people loyal to him rather than to the missions of their departments.

His refusal to separate himself in any meaningful way from his business empire, his lack of transparency about his finances, and his flagrant use of his position as president to promote his profit-making properties are all part of this pattern. Frum projects these trends into 2020:

Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.

The repeatability of 2016. As Trump is fond of reminding us, the experts said he couldn’t win in 2016, and they were wrong.

But it’s worth considering exactly what they were wrong about. What made Trump’s victory so implausible was that he consistently spoke to a base that was nowhere near a majority of the American people. It seemed obvious that his appeal could not translate into a majority of the votes cast.

And it didn’t: He got 46% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48%, a difference of nearly three million votes. What everyone failed to see was that:

  1. The combination of sexism, a long-term build-up of anti-Hillary hype, Trump’s relentless lock-her-up negativity, and unethical meddling by Russia and the FBI would make Clinton unacceptable to enough voters that the election would be close, despite Trump’s general unpopularity.
  2. The inherent gerrymandering of the Electoral College would allow Trump to win despite being outvoted by a clear margin.

After taking office, Trump has continued to speak only to his base, which is still an electoral minority. Unsurprisingly, a whopping 55% of Americans now view him unfavorably after only one month of his presidency.

But couldn’t the same strategy work again in 2020? Given enough repetition, a sufficiently cowed media, new illicit meddling (maybe by a Trump-tamed NSA this time), and relentless efforts to smear whoever the leading Democrat turns out to be — “Pocahontas” Warren, for example — couldn’t he repeat the same trick and be re-elected with no more popularity than he had in 2016?

What to expect. What Trump wants and has always wanted is to make vast amounts of money, to be courted by his fellow billionaires, and to have the power to take revenge on those who slight him. The repressive kleptocracy model offers all that.

To stay in power — and ideally to hand power off to a chosen successor like son-in-law Kushner or daughter Ivanka — Trump must keep the loyalty of his distressed/privileged base. In order to do that, he will offer them some substantive benefits. But ultimately he has no loyalty to them, so he will consistently attempt to give them symbolic victories that cost him nothing, or to take credit for far more than he actually does. The most efficient way for him to maintain their loyalty is to keep them constantly agitated by imaginary insults from their enemies, which Trump will defend them against. [3]

That base will continue to be an ever-shrinking minority, but by making it increasingly harder for others to vote, for immigrants to enter the country, for resident aliens to become citizens, for opposition parties to bring their case to the general public, and for voting majorities to achieve actual power, Trump will endeavor to enlarge that minority’s power far beyond its numbers. In doing so, he will simply be extending and exaggerating policies the Republican Party and the conservative media have pursued for many years.

Accompanying these policies will be the constant attempt to increase public cynicism. Sure, Trump lies, Trump profits from government, Trump bends the rules in his favor, but that’s just politics. Everybody lies, everybody cheats, all news is fake.

The threat, then, isn’t that some Reichstag-fire incident will set off a well-planned takeover that overnight makes America unrecognizable. On the contrary, America in 2020 will be very recognizable, as long as you don’t look too deeply.


[1] This is not to say that some members of these groups don’t have genuine problems worthy of government help — ex-workers of dying industries in dying-industry towns, like West Virginia coal miners, for example. But even here, what thrusts them into public attention isn’t the degree of their distress, it’s that they’re native-born English-speaking white men in distress. It’s the my-problem-should-move-to-the-top-of-the agenda privilege.

Tim Wise comments:

When white people are hurting economically we’re supposed to feel their pain and “bring the jobs back” to their dying rural towns. But when people of color lack jobs in the cities (in large part because of the decline of manufacturing over 40 plus years, as well as discrimination) we tell them to “move,” to go to school and gain new skills, and we lecture them on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps because the government doesn’t owe them anything. But apparently we DO owe white coal miners and assembly line workers their jobs back because remember, out of work white men are “salt of the earth” while out of work people of color are lazy.

[2] Garry Kasparov discusses the difficulties of getting on the ballot and campaigning in Russia in his book Winter is Coming. For example, the rules require your party to have a nominating convention of a certain size, but what if no one is willing to displease the government by renting you space for it?

[3] A good example was his rally this week in Florida, which Melania opened with the Lord’s Prayer. Not only does that give conservative Christians a we’re-still-in-charge-here thrill at no cost to Trump, it allowed the pro-Trump side of the media to further their Christian-persecution narrative.

Supposedly liberals were up in arms about the prayer, but I would never have heard about it if not for Fox News’ coverage of how up-in-arms people like me are. The liberal web sites I regularly cruise didn’t find it worth mentioning. (Fox’ sources are social-media posts by ordinary people. You could find similar posts objecting to more-or-less anything that happens.)

In fact, a campaign rally is a private event, so opening it with prayer does not violate church-state separation. If Trump wants to signal to non-Christians that they are not welcome at his rallies, that’s up to him. I was not offended and I suspect very few liberals were.

White House, Inc.

How can something be a “conflict of interest” if the people who do it don’t seem conflicted about it? Josh Marshall raises a good point.

[S]top talking about ‘conflicts of interest’. Those are guide rails meant to help ethical people to stay ethical or unethical people put on a show of it. There’s no show here. Trump is openly using the Presidency as the world’s greatest marketing opportunity.

So, for example, his Mar-a-Lago Club (where he has been spending a lot of weekends and recently met with the Japanese Prime Minister) doubled its membership fees after the election, to $200K per year. It’s a direct payment for access to the president (or the appearance of access).

Melania’s defamation lawsuit against The Daily Mail is pretty explicit about the marketing opportunities she sees in being First Lady:

The economic damage to Plaintiff’s brand, and licensing, marketing and endorsement opportunities caused by publication of the Mail Online’s defamatory article is multiple millions of dollars. Plaintiff had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a professional model and brand spokesman, and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.

In retrospect, wasn’t it silly of Michelle Obama to waste her eight years of fame on unmarketable causes like childhood obesity? Pity poor Lady Bird Johnson, who spent her term as FLOTUS trying to “Make American Beautiful”, or foolish Nancy Reagan, who frittered away her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” telling kids to “Just Say No” to drugs. How much cold, hard cash did any of them get for their efforts?

This week, Ivanka Trump’s prospects for plunder were in the spotlight. When Nordstrom’s dropped her brand because of falling sales, the President of the United States called them out. Richard Painter, who was an ethics lawyer in the Bush White House and is now at University of Minnesota, commented:

The president’s tweet — posted on his personal account and then re-sent from his White House account — is an act of intimidation. Nordstrom interacts with many executive branch agencies: the Department of Labor, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and others. Each one of these agencies will be headed by Trump appointees. Most will be staffed with other political appointees as well. The president is telling all of these people that he is very angry with Nordstrom. The message is clear, and it won’t take much for a political appointee in some agency to conceive of an ingenious way of ingratiating himself with the White House by making life difficult for the store chain.

… And now every other department store knows that it had better not make a similar “business decision” that displeases the president. In other words, do business with the Trump family and help the Trump family promote its products, or else.

Kellyanne Conway ingratiated herself with the president by doing some Ivanka marketing from the White House briefing room.

“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway told “Fox & Friends.” “I fully — I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

Conway’s remark appears to violate the executive branch’s ban on staff endorsing products or companies. The regulation, from the Office of Government Ethics, also prohibits using public office for private gain of oneself or friends or relatives.

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Heather Nauert from Fox and Friends is looking for a job at the White House and also tweeting about buying Ivanka stuff “in solidarity”. She couldn’t possibly think that Trump family marketing is part of a government job, could she? Wherever would she get such a notion?

What makes this behavior particularly galling to Democrats is the hypocrisy of it: Not so long ago Trump was regularly attacking Hillary Clinton for the apparent (though not particularly real) conflict between her management of the State Department and her connection to the Clinton Foundation, from which the Clintons have never received any direct benefit. Now government employees are openly working to put money into the pockets of the Trumps, and it’s all good.

The Trump defense for this egregious behavior is his usual somebody-else-started-it: Ivanka’s brand was targeted by an social-media boycott campaign #GrabYourWallet. “They’re using her to get to him,” Conway said.

Here’s the point that observation should bring to mind: Trump and his advisors (which formally includes Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner and in every practical sense includes Ivanka herself) should have divested their business interests and put their assets into blind trust. When public officials are actively involved in business, that opens them not just to bribery, but also to pressure from boycotts. But if the Trumps’ assets were in blind trust where they belong, #GrabYourWallet would be no threat to them.

As far as I can tell, no one in the White House is drawing that conclusion. Nothing I’m hearing from White House, Inc. indicates any sense of conflict over using the presidency to further the Trump family’s business interests. So if you want to talk about “conflicts of interest” talk about governing: It’s Trump’s responsibilities to the American people that he’s conflicted about, not his profiteering.

The Ban: Ten Days of Drama

It’s hard to believe how much drama has played out in the last ten days. Even the Advise and Consent style political novels I loved in high school didn’t move this fast.

It all started a week ago Friday, when President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 (a.k.a “the Muslim ban” and “it’s not a Muslim ban“) which Wikipedia summarizes like this:

The order limited refugee arrivals to 50,000 and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days, after which the program would be conditionally resumed for individual countries while prioritizing refugee claims from persecuted minority religions. The order also indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees. Further, the order suspended the entry of alien nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days, after which an updated list will be made. The order allows exceptions to these suspensions on a case-by-case basis. The Department of Homeland Security later exempted U.S. lawful permanent residents (green card holders).

The immediate result was chaos. The order had been reviewed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for “form and legality”, but beyond that was pretty much unvetted, parts of it apparently leaping straight into the world from Steve Bannon’s brain like a malformed Athena from a not-very-godlike Zeus-wannabee. Congressional leaders were not consulted. (Though Trump apparently was helped by Republican congressional staffers who were obliged by a non-disclosure agreement not to tell their bosses; so far history does not record what the out-in-the-cold Republican congressmen think of that.) The border-control officials who were supposed to implement the ban in America’s airports were not briefed in advance. (NYT: “customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president’s orders.”)

People already in the air, including permanent legal residents (i.e. green-card holders) who were returning to their jobs or students with valid visas coming back to their universities, were sent back or detained in airports. City University of New York claims it has 100 students from the affected countries. Two Iraqis who had helped the American military and feared for their lives if they had to return to Iraq were detained at JFK airport.

The public response was immediate. On Saturday, crowds of protesters spontaneously formed at JFK and other airports. By 9 p.m., a federal judge had issued an order preventing the administration from sending the detainees back where they came from. Sunday, the administration backed off of the restrictions on green-card holders.

Internal dissent. On Monday, acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee held over until Trump can get his own AG approved) ordered the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s order in court.

I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.

Also on Monday, an internal State Department dissent-channel memo — reportedly with over 1000 signatures — leaked to the press. It called the Trump order “counter-productive” and said

Looking beyond its effectiveness, this ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.

Rejecting the whole concept of internal dissent from experienced professionals, Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the signers “career bureaucrats” and responded that “they should either get with the program or they can go”. Yates was fired Monday night in typical Trump fashion; the White House statement descended from policy disagreement into personal insult: Yates had “betrayed the Justice Department” and was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration”. (One of Trump’s most disturbing traits is his apparent belief that it’s not enough simply to overcome opposition; the people who oppose him must be shamed and punished. This authoritarian impulse alone should have disqualified him from the presidency.)

Also Monday night, Samantha Bee weighed in.

Defiance. Throughout the week, court orders piled up from judges around the country, and multiple reports indicated that the Trump administration was at best slow-rolling its compliance and at worst simply defying the orders. Friday Politico reported:

Hours after a federal judge ordered customs officers to provide lawyers to travelers detained at Dulles airport last Saturday, senior Trump administration officials instructed the guards to give the travelers phone numbers of legal services organizations, ignoring a mass of lawyers who had gathered at the airport. Most of the legal services offices were closed for the weekend, effectively preventing travelers with green cards from obtaining legal advice.

The move was part of what lawyers contend was a series of foot-dragging actions by the administration that appeared to violate court orders against the Trump’s controversial travel ban. … The [Customs and Border Protection] officers at airports were not rogue individual actors, according to the documents obtained and people interviewed by POLITICO. Rather, the agents on the ground were following orders from high in their chain of command.

For example, a federal judge in Boston ordered the administration to admit travelers with valid visas. The travelers did not get into the country, though, because the administration claimed it had the power to revoke those visas. Slate‘s Jeremy Stahl interviewed an immigration lawyer, who concluded:

When you have an executive that is acting the way that Donald Trump is acting and not controlling what his officers are doing in noncomplying, that’s a constitutional—that’s leading to a constitutional crisis.

Yonatan Zunger put a dark spin on it:

[T]he administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.

Writing on the Lawfare blog, Ben Wittes put a dark spin on the whole enterprise: He thinks the ban’s whole purpose is to appeal to the anti-Muslim bigots in Trump’s base, and has nothing to do with keeping Americans safe.

Put simply, I don’t believe that the stated purpose is the real purpose. This is the first policy the United States has adopted in the post-9/11 era about which I have ever said this. It’s a grave charge, I know, and I’m not making it lightly. But in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process. You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives.

When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.

Where it stands. Friday, a federal court ruling came down from Judge James Robart in Seattle, applying nationally and stated in as sweeping terms as possible, clearly intending to allow no wiggle room. Saturday, the Trump administration said it would comply, pending appeal.

Meanwhile, a State Department spokesperson tells NPR that officials with the department are also adhering to the decision. The department has provisionally revoked somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 individuals’ visas, according to different accounts; under Saturday’s announcement, the State Department says that move has been reversed — and that “individuals with visas that were not physically cancelled may now travel if the visa is otherwise valid.”

Trump again personalized the conflict, tweeting:

The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!

(Lots of people pointed out that Robart’s claim to be a judge is at least as good, if not better, than Trump’s claim to be a president.) Late Saturday night, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Justice Department’s motion to reverse the suspension of Trump’s executive order. The order will remain suspended until the court can make a ruling on the merits of the case. That could happen as early as today, or not.

Over the weekend, congressional Republicans gave strong indications that they don’t want this conflict to escalate to a constitutional crisis. Sunday, Mitch McConnell, who (like Paul Ryan) has been stepping very carefully to avoid the President’s sensitive toes, told CNN’s Jake Tapper:

The courts are going to decide whether the executive order the President issued is valid or not, and we all follow court orders.

The unstated implication is: “You’d better follow them too.”

What will the courts decide? Deborah Pearlstein posted a good summary of the arguments both ways on Jack Balkin’s legal blog Balkinization. And the answer is: It’s a close call.

On the one hand, the Constitution gives the President a lot of power to manage our dealings with other countries, and Congress has supplemented that power in various ways over the years. So the administration has a lot of possible arguments it might make to defend its actions.

On the other hand, courts often look beyond simple questions of authority to rule on intent: If your clear intent is to achieve an unconstitutional result, then a court might block your actions even if they fall within the letter of your legal powers. A good example of this came last summer, when a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter-suppression law. Everything in the law — changing the dates and hours of early voting, requiring IDs, etc. — was within the legislature’s power. But the fact that legislators researched how and when black North Carolinians vote, and then systematically restricted their favorite options, pushed the law beyond the pale.

Here, there is a clear record of intent to create a religious test for entering the United States, which would be unconstitutional. Trump promised a Muslim ban during his campaign. Advisors like Rudy Giuliani have spoken in public about coaching Trump on how to “do it legally” by focusing on the threat of terrorism from particular countries rather than on religion. The order’s provisions to prioritize religious minorities for exceptions to the ban seems intended to make sure Christians aren’t caught in a ban intended for Muslims. (If the administration is serious about offering refuge to persecuted religious minorities, that provision should apply to a lot of Muslims as well: Shia in Sunni-majority countries, Sunni in Shia-majority countries, and Sufis and other smaller Muslim sects everywhere. Will it? Or is it just a Christian loophole?)

Will that be enough to convince an appeals court, and to split the 4-4 Supreme Court so that it doesn’t overrule? Maybe. But even if it does, that ruling is likely to illuminate a path that would allow some future objectionable executive order to pass legal muster.

Then what? Pearlstein says it’s not enough to count on the courts: Protesters need to focus their attention on Congress as well:

There is, however, one foolproof way to ensure the President’s order in its current form does not stand. And it lies with the body that gave the President the authority to issue it in the first place. A growing, bipartisan group of congressional representatives have expressed concern about the order’s scope and effect. And while Senator McConnell has proposed the matter be left to the courts to decide, it is not wise – and should not be easy – for Congress to avoid responsibility here. At a minimum, it would be a serious strategic mistake for the many groups sprung up post-election to push back against the new administration not to focus some of their energies on demanding Congress act.

So far, McConnell, Ryan, and other congressional Republicans have had it both ways: They can tut-tut about executive overreach and incompetent implementation, while remaining uncommitted about the order’s overall intent. As much as possible, the public needs to pin them down. If a Muslim ban (or something like it) is a good thing, then Congress should authorize it. If not, it should establish specific boundaries on the President’s power.

The legitimacy and illegitimacy of Donald Trump

Is Donald Trump a legitimate president? Yes and no.


Not since Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into Washington has a president entered office facing so much organized opposition. Saturday, the day after his inauguration, marches explicitly for women’s rights (and implicitly against Donald Trump) were held all over the country, drawing (by some estimates) more than 3 million participants, and perhaps more than 4 million. The picture above is from much earlier demonstrations in the days following the election, but on the Boston Common Saturday I did see “Not My President” signs. During the boisterous moments before the official speakers took the stage, a “not my president” chant started in my section of the crowd, but quickly fizzled. [1]

It’s not just demonstrators. Last weekend, Congressman John Lewis told NBC’s Chuck Todd “I don’t see Trump as a legitimate president“, citing Russian interference in the election as a reason. Other observers — mostly Democrats, but not entirely — have given other reasons to regard Trump’s victory as shaky or suspicious: Hillary Clinton got nearly three million more votes than he did, winning the national vote 48%-46%. Trump was also assisted by the apparently improper interference of FBI Director James Comey. [2]

Trump has tried to bluster over such talk by tweeting about his “landslide” in the Electoral College, and making baseless charges about “the millions of people who voted illegally” for Clinton. The word legitimate came into the discussion from Trump’s supporters’ accusation that critics were trying to “delegitimatize”  his presidency. [3] By using that word, Lewis was swinging at the pitch thrown by Trump spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway.

So is he legitimate or not? On both sides, I think we’re getting lost in the vagueness of a word. What does it mean to be a “legitimate” president? I can’t speak for all the people who can’t bring themselves to call him “Mr. President”, but I thought I’d lay out exactly how legit I think Trump is, and what difference it makes.

Legal authority and moral authority. What confuses the issue, in my opinion, is that the presidency is really two things: on the one hand a legal office defined by the Constitution, but also a title evoking a much larger and fuzzier penumbra of traditional respect and moral authority. The President of the United States is not just the one who signs or vetoes laws, or gives orders to the Joint Chiefs. He is also the heir of Washington and Lincoln, the symbol and spokesman for the American people, the leader of the free world, and the recipient of the voters’ national mandate. Americans look to their president to express our collective sorrow in moments tragedy, and our resilience in the face of disaster. In our name, he recognizes outstanding achievements, and honors champions of sport and culture. We look to the president for direction in times of trouble. The Constitution says nothing about any of that.

In my mind, the legal office is really not in doubt. Congress counted the electoral votes and verified that Trump had a majority of them. So in the technical, legal sense spelled out in the Constitution, he is the President of the United States. All the powers the Constitution assigns to the President, or that Congress has delegated to him by law, are his to wield. [4]

As for the rest of it, though, Trump at this point deserves nothing, as far as I’m concerned. He is not my leader, and I do not respect him. He has no moral authority, because he deserves none. He carries no mandate, because the voters chose someone else. Our allies view him with suspicion, as they should. So he has the powers spelled out in the Constitution, period.

To a large extent, Trump has created this situation himself: When tradition would put burdens on him beyond those imposed by law, he sloughs those burdens off. [5] It is, after all, only tradition that insists that candidates reveal their tax returns or presidents put their assets in blind trust. Nothing in the Constitution requires that a president act presidential, rather than respond to even the most respectful criticism like a third-grader in a playground argument. [6] No law requires the winner of an election to be gracious, or to reach out to those who voted for other candidates, rather than gratuitously gloat over “my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly“. [7]

On top of his vote deficiency and his unworthy behavior since the election, his entire life shows him to be a genuinely reprehensible person. He assaulted those women. He defrauded those Trump U students. He stiffed those contractors. This is the heir of Washington and Lincoln?

The significance of moral authority. If you think it is toothless to deny Trump the intangible, extra-constitutional benefits of the presidency, consider how often he and his supporters ask for them.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the election settled all the issues that were raised about him during the campaign. He shouldn’t have to account for his conflicts of interest, for example, because the American people knew that when they voted for him. There is no point in continuing to discuss the pussy-grabbing or the defrauding or the stiffing. Or his bigoted attacks on Mexicans or Muslims, or his mimicry of a reporter’s disability. The election washed all that away, as if the electorate were a 130-million-member jury that voted for acquittal.

If Republicans genuinely believed such a clean-slate theory of elections, then President Obama’s clear victory in 2012 would have washed away Benghazi, making all further hearings and rhetoric irrelevant and immaterial. But in Trump’s case even the internal logic of the theory doesn’t work, because the American people did not vote for him. The Electoral College may provide a legal loophole that allows him to take office, but it doesn’t grant absolution. The American people endorsed the case against Donald Trump; he still needs to answer it.

A related claim is that the millions of protesters are misguided, because we need to “give the guy a chance“. Similarly, the Senate should give his cabinet picks the benefit of the doubt, even those who are manifestly unqualified, don’t understand the laws they’re supposed to enforce, have a suspect history on racial issues, or appear to be corrupt.

But none of that is in the Constitution. Constitutionally, nobody has to give Trump or his people a chance, or any benefit of the doubt. He needs to earn all that, and he hasn’t.

Much of Trump’s power over Republicans in Congress, or his hope of intimidating red-state Democrats, comes from an intangible aura of popularity: If elected officials oppose him, his voters will rise up and smite them. That’s why it’s not just legitimate, it’s vitally important to focus public attention on the fact that he is not popular and he has never been popular. Mass demonstrations do that, and so do polls that show Trump’s approval at unprecedented lows for an incoming president. [8]

And finally, I sincerely doubt that the constitutional powers of the presidency are what Trump was aiming for when he ran. He has never shown much interest in governing or in public policy of any sort. I suspect it was the splendor of the presidency that appealed to him, and that is precisely what President Forty-six Percent must be denied unless or until he earns it.

How could he gain legitimacy? To say that Trump can’t be my president unless he agrees with me would deny the whole basis of republican government. We all lose elections from time to time, and we need to learn how to live with that. What keeps Trump from being a fully legitimate president has nothing to do with his beliefs or policies, and everything to do with how he behaves. He could gain legitimacy if he worked at it.

How? To be blunt, he could start by not acting like such an asshole all the time. [Look at note 5 again. I’m using asshole not as an insult, but as a well-defined descriptive term.] A good beginning would be to stop using the word enemies to refer to law-abiding Americans who wish we had a different president, or to journalists who report true things he’d rather people didn’t notice. It was bad enough when Nixon maintained an enemies list in secret. For the President of the United States to use that word in public to refer to anyone short of an ISIS leader is way beyond the pale.

To put that more personally: I will never recognize any man as my leader who uses the word enemy to refer to people like me, or one who takes visible pleasure in insulting me.

He could recognize and carry out the obligations that tradition puts on him, rather than simply claim the benefits. He could release his tax returns and stop setting his business up to profit from his presidency. He could apply the same moral standards to his appointees that all previous presidents have applied to theirs. [9]

He could approach his job with seriousness, and not speak unless he knows what he’s talking about. He could stop telling lies so obvious that they insult our intelligence, like the ones this weekend about the size of his inaugural crowd.

That’s what most of us mean when we say presidential. But if he won’t even attempt to become presidential, then to me he will continue to be president only in a technical legal sense.


[1] “Not my president” didn’t start with Trump protesters. It was also said about Obama and Bush.

[2] Lewis’ statement, as well as expressions of outrage by many other Democratic congresspeople, followed a classified briefing from Comey about the FBI’s investigation of the ties between the Trump campaign and the Putin government. We don’t know exactly what was said in this briefing, but a reasonable guess is that Democrats were angered by Comey’s blatant double standard: When Trump was the target, Comey upheld the FBI policies of not discussing investigations. But he repeatedly made damaging public comments based on investigations of Clinton.

[3] This charge was somewhere between ironic and hypocritical, since Trump himself had literally tried to delegitimize Obama’s presidency by promoting the belief that he isn’t a native-born American, as the Constitution requires. And after Obama’s re-election in 2012, he tweeted: “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”

[4] Trump enters office under an ethical cloud that some think should lead to his impeachment, but that’s a different issue. There are legal methods for removing a president from office, and none of them have been carried out yet. So he is president under the law.

[5] In his insistence that he should receive the intangible benefits of the presidency, but shoulder none of the intangible responsibilities all other presidents have taken on, Trump is fulfilling the definition of asshole that Aaron James laid out in 2012 in his book Assholes: a theory.

A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relationships out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people. … His circumstances are special in each case, in his view, because he is in them. If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.

The asshole, in one paradigmic example, is the guy who cuts to the front of the line while believing firmly in the importance of lines

[6] I found his denunciation of the cast of Hamilton particularly noteworthy. If you watch the video of the event, the cast’s message for Vice President-Elect Mike Pence was entirely respectful, expressing no hostility. (“There’s nothing to boo here,” spokesman Brandon Dixon said to silence the audience.) Instead, they confessed to being “alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us” and encouraged Pence “to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us”.

Trump’s response (via Twitter) was not just to punch down, but to answer a respectful request for reassurance with personal insult:

The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior

[7] Contrast this with how Lincoln, another president elected with less than a majority, closed his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

[8] Since Trump must denounce any mirror that doesn’t show him to be the fairest of them all, he claims these polls are rigged.

The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls. They are rigged just like before.

The flaw in this point of view is that although a few state polls (like Michigan) were badly wrong, the national polls were pretty close. The final RCP polling average had Clinton winning nationally by 3.2%. She actually won by 2.1%. There was a much bigger error in the opposite direction in 2012: the RCP final average was that Obama would win by less than 1%, and he actually won by nearly 4%.

Errors of that magnitude wouldn’t salvage Trump’s approval/disapproval spread, which is currently at -8.1% and dropping. Traditionally, pre-inauguration is when Americans are most optimistic about their new presidents. Gallup had Obama at +71% going into his inauguration in 2009. Even popular-vote-loser George W. Bush came in at +36%.

[9] HHS nominee Tom Price profited by trading healthcare stocks while he had inside knowledge of the industry through his position in Congress, and supported legislation that benefited his companies. Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin “failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents and forgot to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven.”  The Senate should not have to vote on these men; their nominations should be withdrawn. These are not close calls.

Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest

Last week I talked about how Trump’s followers don’t care about process issues. To them, process issues are about getting the appearances right and filling out the correct forms. Only lawyers and fussbudgets care about technicalities like that.

Avoiding conflicts of interest is a process issue. Trump has been appealing to his supporters indifference to such concerns when he sloppily says “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.” or “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.” The grain of truth in those statements is that the president is exempt from the primary conflict-of-interest law (for reasons that will be explained below). So he’s free from some (but not all) legal technicalities, which he expresses by saying that he’s free from conflicts of interest.

This refusal to acknowledge the problem, other than as a set of meaningless hoops people expect him to jump through, explains a lot about the conflict-of-interest plan he revealed Wednesday. The Atlantic ‘s Jeremy Venook comments:

Trump and his lawyer Sheri Dillon laid out the plans that they claimed would resolve the questions about conflicts of interest that have dogged the president-elect since he was elected. Instead, what they announced were piecemeal steps that, though designed and packaged to mitigate the appearance of conflicts of interest, do almost nothing to substantively address concerns that his business entanglements will undermine his ability to faithfully execute the office of the presidency.

The plan. Trump’s plan has a few basic points:

  • He resigns as an officer of the Trump Organization.
  • His assets go into a trust that he continues to own, but which will be managed by his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, together with a Trump executive, Allen Weisselberg.
  • He pledges not to discuss business with his sons or Weisselberg. (Venook calls this a “pinky-swear assurance”. Obviously Trump will continue to meet with his sons, and we’ll have no idea what they talk about.)
  • The Trump Organization does not make any new deals in foreign countries, or any deals at all with any “foreign country, agency, or instrumentality thereof.”
  • New domestic deals will need the approval of “independent” ethics officers, one in the government and one in the Trump Organization.
  • Profits earned from foreign governments — say by diplomats staying at or holding events at Trump hotels — will be donated to the U.S. Treasury.

His lawyers claim that in giving up foreign-government-related profits, he goes over and above what the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause requires, because it does not apply to “fair-value exchanges” like renting a hotel room. (That’s a controversial view, to put it mildly. And who’s to decide the “fair value” of a room in a hotel whose main selling point is the prestige of its image? What if he later claims that a stay in a Trump hotel is — as the MasterCard commercials say — “priceless”.)

The problems. The foremost obstacle to a credible conflict-avoidance plan is that Trump has a long history of welching on his deals and not carrying out his promises. For Trump, no deal is ever done; he’s constantly pushing its boundaries and trying to re-negotiate its terms. At a minimum, we should expect Trump to interpret any constraints on his actions as loosely as possible. So his conflict-of-interest plan needs to have ironclad enforcement provisions.

This one has none. The public knows nothing and will continue to know nothing about the internal workings of the Trump Organization. The ethics officers are appointed by Trump or his sons, and if they rubber-stamp deals that clearly violate the stated terms — say, an interest-free loan from a sovereign wealth fund — we’ll never know. And what is “profit”, anyway? In the real estate business, profit is as much or as little as an accountant is willing to sign off on. Unless Trump volunteers to tell us, we won’t know how much he is remitting to the Treasury or what that number is based on. (Or he might tell us he’s giving so many millions to the Treasury and then not bother to write the check unless or until somebody notices; he’s done that kind of thing before.) 538‘s Ben Casselman sums up:

It’s hard to evaluate Trump’s promises because as a private company, the Trump Organization doesn’t have to disclose many details about its finances or operations and because Trump himself — in a break from the practice of past presidents — has refused to release his tax returns. Trump on Wednesday displayed huge stacks of documents that he said were part of the process of turning his business over to his sons, but he didn’t make those documents available for public inspection. So although Trump did, as promised, provide new details about how he will handle his finances as president, the news conference didn’t do much to change the bottom line: When it comes to conflicts of interest, Trump’s message to Americans remains, “Trust me.”

And then there’s the stuff that’s not covered at all. Even without any new deals, foreign governments will have plenty of opportunities to favor or threaten existing Trump properties. The Trump Organization can hire people that the Trump administration wants to pay off or keep quiet, and we’ll never know. Banks that loan money to Trump businesses — we recently found out there’s a whole lot more debt than Trump previously admitted to — will be regulated by the Trump administration. Quid-pro-quo deals can be arranged to begin after Trump leaves office. And the lease on the Old Post Office, which houses the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, explicitly forbids any “elected official of the Government of the United States” from participating. Presumably Trump thinks he’s solved the problem by having a trust that he owns be party to the lease, but he hasn’t.

Perhaps the most serious potential conflict of interest isn’t financial: Imagine that terrorists in some country, say Turkey, start targeting Trump properties, and Trump concludes that the Turkish government isn’t doing enough to protect them. Is that an issue between the Turkey and a foreign corporation? Or is it an issue between Turkey and President of the United States?

The Schaub speech. Also on Wednesday, the Director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Schaub, gave an unprecedented speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

I wish circumstances were different and I didn’t feel the need to make public remarks today. You don’t hear about ethics when things are going well. You’ve been hearing a lot about ethics lately.

I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the past four decades has met.

We learn a bunch of things from Schaub’s speech. First, that Trump constructed his plan with no input from OGE, the organization that his cabinet nominees have been working with. (Schaub spoke glowingly of Rex Tillerson’s cooperation, and the plan they came up with to insulate him from Exxon-Mobil.) Trump’s attorney had explained the decision not to sell his interest in the Trump Organization because its assets are too illiquid to dispose of quickly or easily. Schaub brushed that off:

[Trump’s] attorney [Sheri Dillon] also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time.

He might not get top dollar if he sold now, but people make sacrifices to serve at the top levels of government.

I appreciate that divestiture can be costly. But the President-elect would not be alone in making that sacrifice. I’ve been involved in just about every Presidential nomination in the past 10 years. I also have been involved in the ethics review of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and most top White House officials. I’ve seen the sacrifices that these individuals have had to make.

It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.

Tillerson, for example agreed to forego “millions of dollars” in bonuses from Exxon-Mobil. Everybody who joined the Obama administration, including Obama himself, had to sell their stocks at the worst possible time. (The exact bottom of the market was in early March, 2009, but November, 2008 was close.)

Finally, we get an explanation of why Congress exempted the president from certain conflict-of-interest laws.

Now, some have said that the President can’t have a conflict of interest, but that is quite obviously not true. I think the most charitable way to understand such statements is that they are referring to a particular conflict of interest law that doesn’t apply to the President. That law, 18 U.S.C. § 208, bars federal employees from participating in particular matters affecting their financial interests. Employees comply with that law by “recusing”, which is a lawyerly way of saying they have stay out of things affecting their financial interests. If they can’t stay out of these things, they have to sell off their assets or get a waiver. That’s what Presidential appointees do. But Congress understood that a President can’t recuse without depriving the American people of the services of their leader. That’s the reason why the law doesn’t apply to the President.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a president who owned oil wells had to recuse himself from any energy-policy discussion, he couldn’t really do his job.

[In response to this speech, House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz sent a letter to Schaub warning him against “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance” and implying that his office’s funding might be cut.]

Other expert opinion. The Atlantic interviewed Norman Eisen, who used to oversee ethics for the Obama administration. Eisen echoes Schaub’s explanation:

You don’t want to have the president in the middle of a crisis where he’s about to make an urgent decision, and his White House Counsel says to him, “Oh, Mr. President, you have a conflict of interest. You have to leave the room. You can’t decide whether to rescue those hostages.” We don’t want to have that.

And points out another way in which “The president can’t have a conflict of interest” is at best “a half truth”.

It is the case that there are certain portions of the federal conflict-of-interest laws that apply to all other federal officials, but do not apply to the president and vice president. But those occur in a large body of constitutional, criminal, and civil law that is intended to regulate conflict. There’s no dispute that the president is covered by the federal criminal law, including 18 U.S.C. § 201, for example, which is bribery of public officials.

Eisen answers questions about enforcement. Impeachment is the ultimate enforcement mechanism, but he outlines other steps that could play out in Congress or the courts, like competitors suing because they feel they’ve been damaged by favors given to Trump businesses.

But why are we even talking about this? He could sign his stuff over to a true, independent trustee, not a family member, let the independent trustee liquidate, put the liquidated assets behind a big, beautiful, blind-trust wall, and set up another ethics firewall for your kids and other managers of the organization. That simple, four-step process would spare us all of this.

The argument against this solution is one I suspect we’ll hear a lot these next four years: Trump is very rich, and it’s unreasonable to expect the very rich to follow the same rules or live by the same standards the rest of us do.

The Year of “This Can’t Be Happening”

In the 2015 Yearly Sift, I wrote:

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF? … I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

That was the best prediction I made all year. For me, the continuing mystery of 2016 was why anyone was voting for Donald Trump. I believed about him then more or less what I believe about him now: He has no qualifications to be president, and no insights about America that deserve a serious person’s attention. Truth means nothing to him. His life demonstrates no interest in anyone but himself and no discernible moral code. He brings out the worst in his followers, encouraging them to be more selfish, more hateful, and less thoughtful.

So why do so many people want him to be our president?

My first post of the new year flashed back to a post I wrote about the Tea Party in 2011: Working-class voters’ rage is like the famous wrong-way touchdown Jim Marshall scored in 1965. They have a right to be angry and to want to “take our country back”, but they’re trying to take it back from the wrong people. It’s not government and bureaucrats who have been stealing their opportunities, it’s corporations and billionaires. The Tea Party’s success had in fact given power to congressional Republicans who were doing their best to empower those oppressors and keep working people down. In short: They’re running the wrong way.

The only time working people have actually succeeded in taking the country back and bettering their lot was when they got behind a liberal: FDR.

You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.

Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.

I didn’t really expect Trump voters to switch to Bernie, but I thought the case needed to be made.

As for what they were doing with Trump, my explanation (in February) was that Trump was an “opportunistic infection” Republicans had left themselves open to.

All the weapons another candidate might use to take Trump down have been systematically dismantled. Are his “facts” wrong? Mitt Romney already burned that bridge in 2012. Do experts say his proposals are nonsense? There are no experts any more; if you feel a need for expert support, go invent your own experts like the Koch brothers and right-wing Christians do. Are his speeches full of racist dog-whistles? Politically correct nonsense! Racism ended in the 60s, except reverse-racism against whites. And if Republicans had to expel anybody who dog-whistled about Obama, they’d have no party left. Are there echoes of fascism in his giant rallies and cult of personality? In his celebration of real and imaginary violence against hecklers? In his fear-mongering about unpopular ethnic or religious groups? In his implication that specific policies are unnecessary, because all will follow from installing a Leader with sufficient Will? More nonsense: There is no fascism any more, unless you mean liberal fascism or Islamofascism.

With all the legitimate arguments of political discourse unavailable, other candidates were left to fight each other and wait for Trump to go away. And when Marco Rubio recently decided he finally had to take Trump on, the only weapon at hand was to tease him like a third-grader, suggesting that he wet his pants during a debate.

But by early March, I thought I knew what the right anti-Trump argument was: He’s a con man. Tear down his image as a master businessman and replace it with the more accurate view that he’s a predatory parasite. The Trump supporters hadn’t been horrified by his attacks on Mexicans or Muslims or the disabled or Megan Kelly, because they didn’t identify with any of those people. But the victims of Trump U and Trump Tampa and all the other Trump business scams do look like them.

Up until now, arguing with Trump supporters has been like telling your 17-year-old daughter that her 29-year-old boyfriend is no good for her: It’s obvious to you, but everything you say just reinforces the me-and-him-against-the-world mystique that has been driving the relationship from the beginning.

… You know what finally gets through to the 17-year-old? Meeting her boyfriend’s previous three teen-age girlfriends, the ones he dumped when they got pregnant. They look just like her — or at least they used to, before the single-mom lifestyle started to drag them down. Realizing that he told them all the things he’s telling her … that starts to mean something.

And that’s the message that’s emerging: Not that Trump is crude (which he is) or racist (which he is) or a proto-fascist (which he is) or unprepared for the presidency (which he is) or any of that. But he’s a con-man, and he hasn’t been conning Mexicans or Muslims or Megyn Kelly (who is too smart to fall for his bullshit). No, his career is all about conning the kind of people who support him now.

By September, he had been nominated, and his core supporters seemed impervious to any argument, including the con-man one. So I assembled a bunch of articles about who they were and what they might be thinking (especially Arlie Russell Hochschild’s account of their “deep story”) in “Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going“.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour.

Ultimately, though, no matter how hard I tried to understand them, I just couldn’t respect anyone so misguided and misinformed as to want to turn the country over to an ignorant huckster like Trump. That frustration boiled over in my election-eve post “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation“.

When did avoiding political correctness become a blanket excuse for being an asshole?

When Trump waves his arms around to make fun of a disabled man, when he suggests that Natasha Stoynoff isn’t attractive enough to assault, when he critiques Hillary Clinton’s butt in front of thousands of cheering fans, when he says that an Indiana-born Hispanic judge can’t be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican“, when he taunts a bereaved mother of a decorated Muslim-American soldier — that’s not “politically incorrect”. He’s just an asshole.

One my many failures of foresight this year was that I did not at all foresee Trump winning. The week after the election, I was in the Midwestern town where I grew up, asking “How did my home town become Trumpland?

All those people who stayed here without a family business to inherit, how did the town look to them? The promising kids who move away and never come back. The good jobs going to foreigners and to corporate climbers who are spending a few years in the sticks in hopes of returning to headquarters at a higher level. The acres of mansions that you can’t figure out who lives in them. How do they feel about all that?

The word that popped into my mind was colonized. Like this wasn’t their town any more.

But as much as I might (at times) empathize or sympathize with those Trump voters who don’t fit into one of the deplorable categories (racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe, Islamophobe), I’m left with the belief that they’ve done something stupid for both the country and themselves. Because whether my con-man argument convinced any of them or not, it’s true. The people who voted for him are the marks, and when his presidency starts to have real effects on the country, even they will see it. As I wrote last week in “How will they change their minds?

Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters. … Eventually people catch on, even if they don’t begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don’t have to believe the “liberal media” when the news is happening to you and the people you love.

… Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It’s something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them.

That’s a story I intend to keep following in 2017: What effects are Trump’s actions having on the people who voted for him, and are any of them starting to notice?