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Trump Fires Yates

A few thoughts on Trump firing Sally Yates, the acting AG.

First, he is well within his rights to do so. The Attorney General answers to the President and, if she won’t obey his instructions, should resign. I have frequently defended politicians who are criticized for legal arguments they made while attorneys general, pointing out that arguing the state’s position is their job, whether they agree with it or not. If Yates didn’t want to defend Trump’s EO, she should have resigned, as Elliott Richardson once did.

That having been said, his statement on the matter is a bit odd, referring to her “betrayal” and trying to argue for the policy. This is politics, not some personality cult. We had enough of that nonsense with the last President. But I guess we’re going to have to get used to these Trump temper tantrums.

Finally, if there is one candidate I hope can be scuttled, it’s Jeff Sessions.

President Clusterfrack

I said this in the comments on my last post, but wanted to put it above the fold. This is from Charles Cooke on the refugee ban:

The way that this was rolled out showed a staggering incompetence by the Administration. According to detailed reports, this was crafted by Rudy Giuliani as a way to get a Muslim ban through the side door. It was put out without vetting by the Office of Legal Counsel or the Department of Homeland Security (according to DHS, they were literally discussing on the phone when Trump signed the order). I know there are those of you who will say, “Good! Fuck the bureaucrats!” But those bureaucrats exist for a reason: to prevent screwups like this; to execute the President’s orders within the bounds of the law and the Constitution. The initial order exempted green card holders, but racist conspiracy-theorist Steve Bannon and Trump confidant Steve Miller overrode that. It was rolled out on a Friday with minimal instructions given to customs agents.

As a result, there was total chaos. Border agents had no idea what they were supposed to be doing and were detaining people at random, trying to pressure them into surrendering their green cards and asking them questions about politics. People in transit — including children, people visiting sick relatives, PhD students, volunteers who helped us in Iraq — were suddenly thrown into an unknown situation. Airports erupted in protests and confusion. There are even reports of federal agents refusing to comply with the court order to cease or the later DHS Secretary’s order to let in green card holders.

The engine of state is vast and complicated. You can’t just issue executive orders like you’re playing an online Be The President game. Our federal agents and agencies need what the hell they are supposed to be doing. Citizens, permanents residents and immigrants need to know what the rules are, not have the rug jerked out from them when they get off of a plane.

Had Trump said something like this: “One week from now, we will temporarily stop immigration from the seven countries that Obama designated as problems. Green card holders, dual citizens and those in transit will be allowed in. After we review our vetting procedures, we will consider whether or not to lift the ban,” people would have opposed it. But there would not have been the chaotic angry scene we saw this weekend.

(Trump is on Twitter saying that if he’d done this, a bunch of “bad hombres” would have rushed to get in under the ban. This is a monumentally ignorant thing to say. It is a very long and time-consuming process to get visas from those countries — to say nothing of booking travel. You can’t do it in a week. This a fantasy concocted to give post facto justification to his incompetence.)

Trump’s first week has been marred by these kind of unforced errors. And it may get worse, with him having elevated Bannon to the NSC in place of the DNI and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Is this what we elected? Is this what we want? Chaos, protests and confusion? A President who rules by executive orders put together by crackpots? Four (or God help us eight) years of blunders, mistakes and Constitutional violations?

Maybe some people want that. But don’t call it conservatism.

The Wheat from the Chaff

Trump has been in office for one week, but it’s an eventful one. Before I get into the heavy stuff, I wanted to take a second to note that, on occasion, we all need to take a deep breath. Yes, some of the things he’s already done are misguided and some of his proposals are poor. He’s showing an alarming egotism and disregard for existing institutions, the law and the Constitution.

But … we’ve got 1460 days of this (at least). It’s important to figure out what to be alarmed by and what not to be alarmed by. Ken White has a great post on this, pointing out that the media and the American people have a tendency to react to stories of government abuse as though they are unprecedented, mainly because they weren’t paying attention while a President they liked was the in the Oval Office.

The urge to indulge in this habit under the thoroughly loathsome Trump Administration is overpowering. Trump and his underlings are scornful of rights and openly fantasize about abusing them. They require dedicated scrutiny. But not every ugly thing that happens now is the result of a Trumpism. Take, for instance, the concern about members of the press being arrested at anti-Trump protests. We should absolutely be vigilant for signs of the criminal justice system being abused to suppress the press and dissent. But cops have always indiscriminately arrested people at protests — including journalists — and falsified masses of improbable riot or assault or obstruction charges afterwards. Reporters have been charged plenty of times before. Sometimes it’s a reflection of law enforcement’s indiscriminate approach to arrests at protests and sometimes it’s a reflection of entrenched law enforcement hostility to press scrutiny. Is the latest incident actually a change — or is the press just noticing because this time they got caught up in it, and they are primed to expect tyranny?

Examples are legion, and not just in the criminal justice arena. Every day you’ll see old policies being cited as new Trump atrocities. Before it happened to Obama, and Bush, and so on ad infinitum.

I’ve decided to impose a 12-hour moratorium on tweeting or blogging any Trump outrage (unless it is something said or done by Trump or his surrogates). Because we’ve developed a huge problem with identifying real Trump outrages from phony ones. Just a few examples

  • Last week, the internet erupted because Trump had “scrubbed” pages from the White House website on climate change and LGBT rights. But it turned out that this was not unusual. When Trump assumed office, all of Obama’s web pages were moved to a new site and the only pages that went up were ones Trump’s team had put together. You could complain that this means LGBT rights and climate change are not priorities with Trump (which we already knew). But saying they’d been “scrubbed” was ignorant.
  • A day later, the internet erupted because Trump had declared his inauguration day a “National Day Of Patriotic Devotion”. This was creepy, but … Obama declared his to be a “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation”. So this was ultimately much ado about nothing.
  • Yesterday, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced the “Doomsday Clock” to 2.5 minutes to midnight. This is utterly meaningless.
  • Yesterday, the internet also erupted because several senior State Department staff resigned. This is a bit alarming because Trump has not filled almost all the senior positions at State (and even the most ardent small-government conservative would admit that foreign relations are the Federal Government’s job). But, as Alex noted, the resignations were not unusual or unprecedented. In fact, most senior government officials resign when a new Administration takes office. Some are just held on for continuity.
  • There’s been a bit of hubbub over the Administration telling government scientists not to communicate with the public. It’s not clear how common this is or how extensive. I am very concerned that the Administration may be politicizing science. But this is not unprecedented — the previous Administration was more than happy to indulge in pseudo-scientific trafficking “studies”. For the moment, I am holding back on a full-scale blast until it’s clear what’s going on.

The problem with these pseudo- or semi-controversies is that they obscure really bad stuff the Administration is actually doing that is not in question at all. To wit:

  • Issuing an executive order last week that has HHS grant more waivers to insurance mandates under Obamacare. That may sounds good. But since insurance companies are still forbidden from blocking insurance due to pre-existing conditions, this is only going to enhance the insurance death spiral.
  • Wallowing in conspiracy theories about voter fraud. Trump is obsessed with his popularity and is now proposing a massive investigation into mythical millions of illegal aliens voting. If masses of illegal aliens voted in 2016, they were just as skilled as the mythical Russian hackers who supposedly stole the election for Trump. They somehow disguised themselves as well-established demographic trends, voted Republican down-ballot and concentrated all their power in California, which Clinton was going to win anyway. This fantasy of Trump’s ends in one place: a national ID card and national voter database.
  • Reopening CIA black sites and resuming torture. This was one of my biggest breaks with the Republican Party and remains so. The black sites create a space where torturers can operate outside of the law, outside of the Geneva convention and outside of the rules of war. And the CIA’s record in defense of their program — destroying evidence, lying to Congress, spying on Congress — is a huge black mark against them. Trump has decreed that torture “absolutely” works despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And whether it works or not, it is a violation of the law, our treaty obligations and basic human decency. He’s talking as though to defeat ISIS, we need to become ISIS.
  • Trump, a supposed Culture War moderate, restored the gag order that prevents NGO’s from getting money if they perform abortions or even counsel women about abortions. But he extended it further to all international health organizations, not just those involved with family planning. Organizations fighting HIV/AIDS could see their funding cut if they even mention abortion. (To be fair, this reeks of that Culture War dunderhead Pence. But Trump signed it, probably not knowing what he was signing.) This seemingly innocuous move could kill thousands, even potentially undoing Bush 43’s greatest legacy: the tremendous progress made in fighting AIDS in Africa.
  • Trump, as promised, banned immigration from several Muslim countries, including countries where we created the refugee crisis and applying even to people who helped us and are now at risk of retaliation. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, the ban does not apply to countries where Trump has business interests.
  • He continued to make false claims about surging crime, saying DC and Philadelphia are experiencing huge surges in murder (they aren’t). He also threatened to send in the feds to deal with Chicago, which really is seeing a surge of violence. But as Radley Balko pointed out, the Feds already did look into Chicago and concluded that the policing culture, which includes such “politically correct” things as black sites, beatings, smashed dash cams and cover-ups, is the biggest problem.
  • Trump cancelled TPP, to the delight of China and the despair of the people who would have benefitted. And he’s now supporting a “border adjustment tax” that will spike the cost of consumer goods. Yesterday, it was touted as the way Mexico will pay for his stupid wall although it does not such thing. And his angry tweeting about Mexico caused the Mexican President to cancel a meeting — not a good thing for our third biggest trading partner.

Since I wrote the above, I’ve been trying to think of anything good Trump has done in the first week. He froze regulations, which is sorta good but there are few on things like airline safety that we kind of need. He froze government hiring, which is fine. He removed the ban on the Keystone Pipeline, which is fine, but not nearly the economic stimulus he thinks it will be. That’s pretty much it and all stuff we could have gotten out of a generic Republican sans the bullshit.

Look, there are bunch of you that support Trump. I get that. But you can’t claim that a man who wants political control of science, torture, baseless investigations into supposed voter fraud, hard restraints on immigration, a global gag order on abortion and a thousand other policies that clamp down on us is, in any way, a supporter of freedom or the Constitution. I said before the election that Trump had the makings of a thug. We’re only a week in but I’ve seen nothing to make me reassess that opinion.

Bizzaro World

So Trump’s inauguration was on Friday. It was obvious that the inauguration — while well-attended — was not as well-attended as Obama’s. There were visible open spaces on the mall, MTA ridership was down and ballpark estimates were low. 250,000 tickets were sent out but it looks like the total crowd was in about the half million range or a bit below. This would be massively less than Obama’s crowds, but close to what Bush drew. Estimates will come out soon (the Park Service no longer make estimates after Louis Farrakhan threw a fit over his “million man march” drawing “only” 400,000 people.)

For some reason, Trump and his supporters got in a tizzy over the low attendance numbers though. There were a number of arguments that could be made in Trump’s favor: the weather wasn’t great; Trump’s supporters are more working class; DC is a very heavily Democratic town; there’s less of a cult following of Trump; etc. But instead of doing that, Trump decided to go with an outright brassbound cringingly obvious lie:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer came to the briefing room Saturday to chastise journalists for their coverage of attendance at President Trump’s inauguration before leaving the briefing room without taking any questions.

..

“Inaccurate numbers involving crowd size were also tweeted,” Spicer said, his voice escalating in volume. “No one had numbers…because the National Park Service does not put any out.” He said the same applied to “any attempt to count the protesters today,” referring to the Women’s March on Washington that packed the National Mall area.

Despite the lack of numbers he cited, Spicer went on to assert “this was the largest audience to ever witness the inauguration period both in person and around the globe.”

“Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way in one particular tweet to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall,” Spicer said. He described what he considered unfair visuals from the event: “This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings were used to protect the grass on the mall…That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing while in years past, the grass eliminated this visual.”

Later, Spicer blasted the reporting as “shameful” and “wrong,” calling them “attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration.”

Spicer cited false MTA ridership figures, made false claims about floor coverings (which were used in past inaugurations), blasted the media and then stomped out. You have to watch it to get the full flavor. He was angry. It reminded me of nothing so much as Bill Clinton wagging his finger at us and insisting he’d never touched Monica.

(Spicer also blasted Time for incorrectly reporting that MLK’s bust has been removed from the Oval Office. The reporter in question realized within hours that his view was obstructed and apologized for the error. Spicer accepted the apology on Twitter, then went out and had a hissy fit about it anyway.)

Look, I’m used to politicians lying. But never this blatantly, this stupidly or this angrily. It’s usually stuff like claiming small decreases in spending growth are “draconian cuts” that they’re the most transparent administration ever. It’s usually stuff they can weasel around. But this was an obvious lie, a ridiculous lie, the kind you would have expected for Baghdad Bob.

There’s a lot of theories floating around. Some people think Trump is gaslighting the country — trying to lie so much about little things that his lies about big things will be swallowed. Some people think he’s trying to distract attention away from other things (although the number of dumb Trump lies and dumb Trump scandals is so high, they’re guaranteed to overlap). I never ascribe to conspiracy, however, what can be ascribed to incompetence. Trump is just a dumb, venal, conceited man who desperately wants to think he is beloved and worshipped. Hence the hilarious claims that he won the election in the biggest landslide in history. Hence the bizarre claims that his approval numbers are rigged. Hence the surreal sight of a press secretary screaming at the press that a million and a half people attending the inauguration, apparently mostly disguised as empty reviewing stands. He desperately wants our admiration and worship, the two things he will never get. Because even if his Presidency goes exceedingly well … he’ll still be Donald Trump. He’s never going to be Reagan or even Bush 41. The most he can aspire to be is a low-rent Bill Clinton, a President we can say did a good job but was still a horse’s ass.

There is one real concern here, however. If the Trump Administration gets a reputation for dishonesty, it could create problems in foreign relations. If we need to reassure China that we have no intention of recognizing Taiwan, they need to believe that. If we have to mitigate a conflict between India and Pakistan, both sides have to trust us. If we tell the world that Iran has restarted its nuclear program, they can’t think we’re full of shit.

This reflexive flagrant dishonesty is going to bite us in the ass down the road.

Update: This nails it:

Rule #1 for press relations is that you can obfuscate, you can misrepresent, you can shade the truth to a ridiculous degree, or play dumb and pretend not to know things you absolutely do know. But you can’t peddle affirmative, provable falsehoods. And it’s not because there’s some code of honor among press secretaries, but because once you’re a proven liar in public, you can’t adequately serve your principal. Every principal needs a spokesman who has the ability, in a crunch, to tell the press something important and know that they’ll be believed 100 percent, without reservation.

Sean Spicer is blowing credibility on an issue that means absolutely nothing. What’s he going to do when we’re on the brink of a war or something?

Women’s March

I won’t say anything about their goals or objectives. But the turnout for today’s Women’s March has so far been extraordinary. Either on Twitter or FB, I’m seeing crowds from LA to Austin to Nashville to DC. And they are dwarfing what showed up for Trump’s inaugural. It seems to be almost entirely peaceful.

Doubtless, there is a lot of stuff I’d disagree with out there (the agenda seems to be a mishmash of liberal priorities). And I’m wondering where all this was while Obama was droning American citizens and snooping through our phones. But I have to tip my hat to the organizers. This is an astonishing turnout.

Fake News Alert: Ricky Perry

So last night, the NYT ran a sensational story about how Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee for Energy Secretary, doesn’t know what the Energy Department does. According to them, he thought it mostly promoted fossil fuels or whatever and didn’t understand that much of their authority centers around regulating and maintaining our nuclear arsenal. Social media jumped all over it, liberals wrung their hands while others pointed out that this claim seems thinly sourced.

Oh, yeah … it was total bullshit:

The New York Times interpreted a quote from a former Trump transition official to mean that Rick Perry, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of energy, didn’t fully grasp the role of the Department of Energy.

That former transition official, Michael McKenna, told The Daily Caller Wednesday that the Times misinterpreted him and Perry “of course” understood that a key role of the Department of Energy is caring for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

In fact, you can go back to Perry’s acceptance of the nomination to find him talking about the nuclear arsenal. And, back in 2012, his campaign platform talked about closing the Department of Energy … while moving its control of the nuclear stockpile to the Department of Defense. So, yes, Rick Perry knew what the job entailed. He almost certainly knew it better than most of the people currently mocking him.

This building hysteria is becoming a problem with Trump’s cabinet nominees. I can certainly see why people don’t like some of them. I don’t like Sessions. I think Tillerson was out of his depth. And while I’m open-minded on DeVos, she badly flubbed some questions. But this is getting ridiculous. Perry at Energy is actually one of the less alarming appointments. Perry was a successful governor of Texas. His Presidential campaign floundered, I think, because he didn’t really want the job. He always crossed me as the sort of Republican I grew up with: somewhat bumbling, vaguely competent; the kind of guy who wants to get the job done as expeditiously as possible so he can get back to the golf course or his mistress (or both). Save your ammo guys. There are away more alarming people in this Administration than James Richard Perry.

We’ll see how the hearing goes, but the NYT’s report is garbage.

Manning to Go Free

I’m actually shocked:

President Barack Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of documents and videos to WikiLeaks.

The President also pardoned James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who pleaded guilty in October to a single charge of making false statements to federal investigators in 2012 when he was questioned about leaking top secret information on US efforts to cripple Iran’s nuclear program to two journalists.

A presidential commutation reduces the sentence being served but it does not change the fact of conviction, whereas a pardon forgives a certain criminal offense.

Manning, a transgender woman and former US Army soldier, was serving a 35-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, an all-male Army prison in eastern Kansas, despite her request to transfer to a civilian prison. A White House statement on Tuesday said her prison sentence is set to expire on May 17.

The material, which WikiLeaks published in 2010, included a classified video of a US helicopter attacking civilians and journalists in Iraq in 2007. Labeled “Collateral Murder,” the film drew criticism from human rights activists for the deaths of innocent people.

Though found guilty on 20 out of 22 possible charges (including violating the US Espionage Act), Manning was not convicted of the most serious one; aiding the enemy, which could have earned the private a life sentence.
Instead, the former intelligence analyst was sentenced to prison, as well as demoted from private first class to private and dishonorably discharged.

Manning was in solitary for no apparent reason and was having problems (e.g., two suicide attempts). But this is honestly surprising. I know the intelligence community was vehemently opposed. Obama has been commuting a lot of sentences for drug dealers and such, which I don’t really have a problem with. But this is the biggest one yet.

I’ll have to think about this one a bit though. Manning’s leaks crossed me as less defensible than Snowden’s. Snowden, at least, was revealing NSA malfeasance and civil liberties violations, even if one disagrees with the manner in which he revealed them. Manning’s leaks seemed more motivated at embarrassing the military and political leadership than anything else (e.g., Cablegate, which revealed diplomatically embarrassing discussions but no actual scandals).

So why has Obama pardoned Manning and not Snowden? I suspect because Manning undermined Bush and Snowden undermined Obama. We’ve seen this kind of partisan bullshit with Wikileaks. Republicans who denounced it when Manning was releasing info praised it when it released the DNC’s e-mails. And Democrats who praised Wikileaks when it was humiliating Bush denounced it when it humiliated Clinton. My stance on Wikileaks evolved a bit in the early days (as you’ll see in the link below) but solidified by the end of the Bush years. While I appreciate the efforts to reveal lawbreaking and civil liberties violations, I do not trust this messenger. Assange does not have our interests at heart and the information he has revealed has generally not benefitted us or the world. Quite the contrary.

As an example, I wrote a long blog many years ago on the “collateral murder” video. I disagreed with Wikileaks editorializing of the video, seeing it more as a tragic accident than the deliberate targeting of civilians. And be sure to click through to letters from Andrew Sullivan’s readers who go into the context of the video.

Anyway, Manning is going free and I’m happy for her, I guess. But I’m very surprised and baffled by this. I really didn’t expect it.

MLK Day

There are too many good tributes out there to link just one. Read his speeches, read the threatening letter the FBI sent to him, look at the pictures. King wasn’t just a great civil rights leader; he was a patriot, challenging the nation to be its better self.

I did not want to highlight this little speech from Rubio that actually moved me.

Just imagine if we were inaugurating this guy in four days time.