Everything Connected

Everything’s connected. Environmentalists say that. Don’t wipe out this obscure species or that – that dung beetle has a useful function. Possums eat ticks. Everything is interlocked. Don’t upset nature’s balance – and drive a bit less, or drive something electric, or a hybrid. Hurricanes will be less intense. There will be fewer massive forest fires. The ice caps won’t melt as fast – the flooding of our coastal cities can be put off a few more decades. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. And of course hippies used to say that everything’s connected. We’re all brothers and sisters. Welcome to the Age of Aquarius. Harmony and understanding – sympathy and trust abounding – that sort of thing – and come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another – right now, damn it! And of course Jesus used to say that too – “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”

Evangelicals these days have carved out exceptions to that. There are those who should be shunned and reviled and punished – gays and Democrats and whatnot – but evangelicals cover that by saying that they hate the sin and not the sinner. That’s not much comfort to those being shunned and reviled and punished, but the thought is there. We’re all sort of connected, even if evangelicals hate that thought – but we are connected in another odd way. Most everyone is on Facebook. Those who hated each other long ago in high school are “friends” now. Everyone has a few, or a lot, of Facebook “friends” they’ve never met, and probably wouldn’t want to meet, face to face. Everyone’s connected anyway.

This may have led to real harm. People now see connections where there are none. That was inevitable – it’s a way of thinking. Look for that illusive hidden connection – and that leads many into this conspiracy theory or that. Everything’s connected after all. That leads to this sort of thing:

A local Washington, D.C. lawmaker has apologized for posting a video on social media blaming the Rothschilds, a wealthy banking family who have often been at the center of anti-Semitic attacks, for climate change and an unexpected snow.

“Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation,” Trayon White Sr., who sits on the local city council, said in the video. “And D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”

White later apologized and deleted the video off of social media, but he has reportedly made similar comments tying the Jewish family to climate change in the past…

Well, the Rothschilds may be controlling the climate – one never knows, if everything is connected.

Aaron Blake covers a political example of that:

President Trump has stepped up his attacks on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation in recent days, and his lawyer even suggested that the inquiry should be shut down. And just in case the direction in which this whole thing is headed wasn’t clear, Trump has now hired a lawyer who argues the president is being framed.

Trump’s legal team on Monday announced the hiring of Joseph E. diGenova, a former U.S. attorney who served as an independent counsel and a special counsel in the 1990s and was later hired by the New York Senate to investigate Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D)…

DiGenova clearly has experience, but what may make him most attractive to Trump are his thoughts on this particular case. He told Fox News Channel in January that the investigation is “a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton and, if she didn’t win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime.”

“Make no mistake about it: A group of FBI and DOJ people were trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime,” diGenova said…

DiGenova sees the connection, and he has talked about this hidden plot on Fox News for months. Donald Trump watches a few hours of Fox and Friends each morning. Donald Trump just hired the guy. He too sees that that illusive hidden connection – this hidden plot. One never knows. It could be. The next few months could be interesting. The rest of America – living in the Facebook world of hypothetical but perhaps vaguely plausible connections for a few hours each day – may come to think this could be. One never knows.

Facebook is the problem. It generates connections. That’s its business model, and Dylan Byers explains how that can be manipulated:

Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge professor, accessed the data of more than 50 million Facebook users simply by creating a survey filled out by 270,000 people. Facebook provided Kogan with the data of anyone who took the survey, as well as their friends’ data. In a statement, Facebook said, “Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time.”

More than a quarter million people took that survey – a personality profile – and were paid to do that. In return, they gave up a bit of personal information, but Facebook is set up as a service to advertisers. Facebook grabbed the same personal data from everyone on each person’s “friends” list. Then, in turn, Facebook grabbed the same personal data from every one of those friend’s “friends” lists – and so on and so forth. Everything’s connected. Advertisers love that. That’s good stuff. That was soon fifty million instances of good stuff, but Facebook balked:

The one rule Kogan violated, according to Facebook, was passing the user data to third parties, including Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm founded by former Trump aide Steve Bannon and conservative donor Robert Mercer.

But even Facebook sources acknowledged to CNN that it is impossible to completely monitor what developers and advertisers do with the data once it’s in their hands. It’s like selling cigarettes to someone and telling them not to share the cigarettes with their friends.

This was trouble:

The limit of Facebook’s ability to enforce compliance with data-usage was highlighted by Facebook’s own response to Kogan’s violation. Facebook says it learned of Kogan’s violation in 2015 and was subsequently assured by all parties that the data had been destroyed. But Facebook also says it learned just days ago that “not all data was deleted.”

In a statement, Facebook deputy general counsel Paul Grewal said “protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do.” That may be a hard argument for the public to accept given that Facebook’s business is providing people’s information to outside parties whose ultimate goals are unknowable.

That’s the real problem:

Facebook says that starting in 2014 it gave users greater control over what parts of their information are shared with app developers and advertisers. It also says it has enhanced its app review process to require developers “to justify the data they’re looking to collect and how they’re going to use it – before they’re allowed to even ask people for it.”

Still, the sources inside Facebook acknowledge that such measures cannot guarantee that some people won’t succeed in mining Facebook data and passing it off to third parties.

And now Facebook is in hot water:

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar has called on [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which she serves, to explain “what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters.”

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg and the rest of the Facebook leadership seem conspicuously absent. Neither the Facebook CEO nor his top deputy, Sheryl Sandberg, has commented publicly on the matter. They have left that task to Grewal, a lawyer. No one has provided an adequate explanation for why Facebook did not disclose Kogan’s violation to the more than 50 million users who were affected when the company first learned about it in 2015.

“We are conducting a comprehensive internal and external review and are working to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists. That is where our focus lies as we remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information,” Grewal said in a statement Sunday.

This is not good:

All of this comes as Facebook is already getting questions about the long-term appeal of its platform, at least in the United States. The number of daily active users in the United States – a whopping 184 million – declined for the first time last quarter. Facebook also lost 2.8 million users under the age of 25 last year, and is set to lose another 2 million this year…

Facebook is losing users. Advertisers see the writing on the wall – Facebook may have to change its business model and they may not get as much as of all the useful profile data in the future. Facebook stock fell off the cliff. The markets fell off the cliff – the Dow was down almost five hundred points in the middle of the day. No one could do any targeted marketing if there were no targets.

But that’s not the whole story. The New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg covers that:

Sitting in a hotel bar, Alexander Nix, who runs the political data firm Cambridge Analytica, had a few ideas for a prospective client looking for help in a foreign election. The firm could send an attractive woman to seduce a rival candidate and secretly videotape the encounter, Mr. Nix said – or send someone posing as a wealthy land developer to pass a bribe.

“We have a long history of working behind the scenes,” Mr. Nix said.

The prospective client, though, was actually a reporter from Channel 4 News in Britain, and the encounter was secretly filmed as part of a months-long investigation into Cambridge Analytica, the data firm with ties to President Trump’s 2016 campaign.

The results of Channel 4’s work were broadcast in Britain on Monday, days after reports in The New York Times and The Observer of London that the firm had harvested the data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles in its bid to develop techniques for predicting the behavior of individual American voters.

That’s the story, and it isn’t pretty:

The weekend’s reports about the data misuse have prompted calls from lawmakers in Britain and the United States for renewed scrutiny of Facebook, and at least two American state prosecutors have said they are looking into the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica.

Now, the Channel 4 broadcast appears likely to cast an even harsher spotlight on the company, which was founded by Stephen K. Bannon and Robert Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor who has put at least $15 million into Cambridge Analytica.

The firm’s so-called psychographic modeling techniques, which were built in part with the data harvested from Facebook, underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016, though many have questioned their effectiveness.

But the sting did work:

The Channel 4 reporter posed as a “fixer” for a wealthy Sri Lankan family that wanted to help politicians they favored. In a series of meetings at London hotels between November and January, all of which were secretly filmed, Mr. Nix and other executives boasted that Cambridge Analytica employs front companies and former spies on behalf of political clients.

The information that is uncovered through such clandestine work is then put “into the bloodstream to the internet,” said Mark Turnbull, another Cambridge executive, in an encounter in December 2017 at the Berkeley hotel in London.

“Then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again, over time, to watch it take shape,” he added. “It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda.’ Because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘Who’s put that out?'”

This was quite clever, and Michelle Goldberg takes it from there:

Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy data firm that helped elect Donald Trump, specializes in “psychographic” profiling, which it sells as a sophisticated way to digitally manipulate huge numbers of people on behalf of its clients.

On Monday, Britain’s Channel 4 News ran an explosive exposé of the embattled company. Going undercover as a potential client, its reporter filmed Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, talking about entrapping his clients’ opponents by sending “very beautiful” Ukrainian sex workers to their homes. He spoke of offering bribes to candidates while secretly filming them and putting the footage online, of employing fake IDs and bogus websites. Mark Turnbull, the managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, described how the company “put information into the bloodstream of the internet” and then watched it spread.

This story came two days after a joint investigation by The New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from over 50 million Facebook users without their permission. That, The Times wrote, “allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.”

The links are useful, and Goldberg adds this:

After days of revelations, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Cambridge Analytica. But we’ve learned that an operation at the heart of Trump’s campaign was ethically nihilistic and quite possibly criminal in ways that even its harshest critics hadn’t suspected. That’s useful information. In weighing the credibility of various accusations made against the president, it’s good to know the depths to which the people around him are willing to sink.

The people around the president are the problem:

Created in 2013, Cambridge Analytica is an offshoot of the SCL Group, a British company that specialized in disinformation campaigns in the developing world. It’s mostly owned by the Mercer family, billionaire right-wing donors and strong Trump supporters. Before becoming the Trump campaign’s chief executive, Steve Bannon was Cambridge Analytica’s vice president. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI also served as an adviser to the company.

Cambridge Analytica shared office space with Trump’s San Antonio-based digital operation, and took substantial credit for its success. “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications played such an integral part in President-elect Donald Trump’s extraordinary win,” Nix said in a Nov. 9, 2016, news release.

Everything really is connected, and this was rather amazing:

It’s long been hard to judge how well psychographic profiling actually works. Many consider Cambridge Analytica overrated. Last year, BuzzFeed News reported that former employees said “that despite its sales pitch and public statements, it never provided any proof that the technique was effective or that the company had the ability to execute it on a large scale.” Those who feared that Cambridge Analytica was conducting information warfare on the American people may have been giving the company’s self-serving propaganda too much credence.

But whether or not Cambridge Analytica’s methodology works, the fact that the Trump campaign had a crew of high-tech dirty tricksters on its payroll is significant. We already know that Cambridge Analytica reached out to Julian Assange about finding and disseminating Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. We know that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has asked the company to turn over documents related to the Trump campaign. Channel Four News plans to air additional undercover footage about Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Trump campaign on Tuesday.

This is a bombshell:

At a minimum, we’ve learned that the Trump campaign’s vaunted social media program was built on deception. Shortly after the 2016 election, Forbes ran an article crediting Jared Kushner for his father-in-law’s shocking triumph. Thanks to digital tools, it said, the traditional presidential campaign was dead, “and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it.”

For those who knew something of Kushner’s pre-election career, this portrait of him as some sort of analytics genius was befuddling. The small, gossipy New York newspaper he’d owned, The New York Observer, didn’t even have a particularly good website. “He wasn’t tech-savvy at all,” Elizabeth Spiers, the paper’s former editor in chief, told me.

But everything falls together now:

If the Trump campaign had a social media advantage, one reason is that it hired a company that mined vast amounts of illicitly obtained data.

There’s a lesson here for our understanding of the Trump presidency. Trump and his lackeys have been waging their own sort of psychological warfare on the American majority that abhors them. On the one hand, they act like idiots. On the other, they won, which makes it seem as if they must possess some sort of occult genius. With each day, however, it’s clearer that the secret of Trump’s success is cheating. He and those around him don’t have to be better than their opponents because they’re willing to be so much worse.

That’s a bit harsh, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog adds this perspective:

I assume every thinking person was purged of techno-utopian hopes a long time ago, but if any of that thinking still persisted, I imagine it’s gone now. We’ve known for a long time that every major website and app is just a machine for collecting monetizable personal data, but the story of Cambridge Analytica’s unauthorized leveraging of information obtained via Facebook really brings that home…

Data manipulation is what these guys put in the shop window, but if want the real goods, you have to slip into a back room and get … the same kinds of dirty tricks that political operatives and other unsavory creatures have used for generations.

It was the same old nasty stuff – call girls and bribes and whatnot – with the addition of targeted marketing offering fifty million personal profiles, grabbed from Facebook without the permission of all but a quarter million of those users – because Facebook was set up, from the beginning, to do just that sort of thing. Everything was supposed to be connected. That’s how Facebook makes money. That may also be how Facebook falls. Some things shouldn’t be connected. That may also be how Donald Trump falls. What are friends for?

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The Vain Man Gloats

This was the weekend that Donald Trump gloated. He had fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017, but that had backfired. Comey had told Congress the Trump campaign had been under investigation since the summer before – something seemed fishy with the Russians – and there was something fishy about Michael Flynn too, Trump’s national security advisor. He had pulled Comey aside, to speak with him privately – drop the Flynn business. Comey balked, and then Comey was gone. Trump said it never happened. Comey said he took notes – “contemporaneous notes” as they’re called. Trump said he was lying and Comey had better hope there were no White House tapes of those conversations. There were no tapes, and Comey had shared his notes with his peers, including FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and now Robert Mueller has them. Trump then said Comey’s firing has nothing to do with that – Comey had handled the Hillary Clinton business badly and everyone at the FBI hated him anyway. That lasted one day. The day after he fired Comey he boasted to the Russian ambassador that he had rid himself of all that Russia nonsense – in a meeting closed to the American press – but the Russian press covered it. Then he told Lester Holt, on national television, he had fired Comey pretty much because of that Russia business. That’s why Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in charge now, appointed Robert Mueller to look into all of this – Rosenstein said he had no choice.

Everything went wrong. Something had to done, because Mueller was going to ask Andrew McCabe about Comey’s notes. He had to “get” Andrew McCabe. He did. He got him fired, a few hours before he would be vested in his pension plan. He’d worked for decades at the FBI and now wouldn’t get a penny. Trump used all the levers of government to ruin the man financially – and he did. McCabe will still talk to Mueller, but at least Trump ruined his life. He could gloat. He could also say he didn’t fire McCabe, the FBI did – but Jeff Sessions, the attorney general – responsible for the FBI – wants to keep his job. Jeff Sessions had no choice. It was sweet revenge.

A less harsh way to look at this is this:

 Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was fired on Friday – hours before he was due to retire. McCabe was a frequent target of harsh criticism from President Trump, and though his firing was recommended through internal FBI channels, Trump’s public ire towards McCabe has tainted his dismissal with a whiff of impropriety. The ex-deputy director’s firing has also jeopardized the pension he would have received as a 21-year-veteran of the Bureau.

The FBI’s professional review office recommended that McCabe be fired for “lack of candor” concerning the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton. McCabe was accused of lying about his decision to allow FBI officials to speak to the press…

That may or may not be true – his job included making things clear to the press so that’s a judgment call – and he was already out of the way. McCabe had stepped down from his post in January, and was using accumulated vacation time to remain on the rolls until his official retirement date, but Trump tweeted his gloating anyway:

Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!

The hard working men and women of the FBI are scared shitless now – any one of them could be next – but Trump was on a mission:

Trump has repeatedly posted critical tweets about McCabe since July of 2017, when he asked why Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t “replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation.”

That’s been going on for months – David Frum has the full details – but then this happened:

McCabe promptly issued a remarkable statement regarding his firing, saying that he was, “singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey.”

He suggested that his termination is an effort to undermine the Mueller investigation. “This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally,” he continued, “but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally.”

McCabe, himself a lifelong Republican, has long attracted criticism from his fellow conservatives. His Democrat wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, accepted donations from Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe during her failed 2015 run for a Virginia state Senate seat, causing conservatives to speculate that McCabe had a conflict of interest in his role at the FBI.

In his statement, McCabe wrote that his firing was part of a broader attack on the FBI from the Trump administration: “The big picture is a tale of what can happen when law enforcement is politicized, public servants are attacked, and people who are supposed to cherish and protect our institutions become instruments for damaging those institutions and people.”

And he has notes too:

Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy FBI director who was fired late Friday, kept contemporaneous memos about his interactions with President Trump and his conversations with the former director James B. Comey, a person close to Mr. McCabe said on Saturday.

The memos could bolster the account of Mr. Comey, whose own memos and testimony describe repeated requests by Mr. Trump to clear his name. Mr. Comey said Mr. Trump also asked him to shut down a criminal investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Both matters are under investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is considering whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct justice.

Mr. McCabe’s memos were left at the FBI, which means that Mr. Mueller’s investigators have access to them as they work to corroborate Mr. Comey’s account…

Mr. McCabe is known to have had at least three meetings with the president. In one, he asked Mr. McCabe how he had voted in the presidential election. In each, he asked about Mr. McCabe’s wife, Jill, who ran a failed campaign as a Democrat for the Virginia State Senate. Mr. McCabe has identified as a lifelong Republican but did not vote in the 2016 presidential race.

Nothing seems to be going right for Donald Trump at the moment, but a vain man, when he can’t gloat, goes on the attack:

President Trump on Sunday abandoned a strategy of showing deference to the special counsel examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, lashing out at what he characterized as a partisan investigation and alarming Republicans who feared he might seek to shut it down.

Mr. Trump has long suggested that allegations that he or his campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election were a “hoax” and part of a “witch hunt,” but until this weekend he had largely heeded the advice of lawyers who counseled him not to directly attack Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for fear of antagonizing prosecutors.

“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Another Dem recently added…does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!”

There are no thirteen hardened Democrats – but no matter – and there’s a real matter to consider:

The attack on Mr. Mueller, a longtime Republican and former FBI director appointed by a Republican president, George W. Bush, drew immediate rebukes from some members of the party who expressed concern that it might presage an effort to fire the special counsel. Such a move, they warned, would give the appearance of a corrupt attempt to short-circuit the investigation and set off a bipartisan backlash.

“If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we’re a rule-of-law nation,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an ally of the president, said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “When it comes to Mr. Mueller, he is following the evidence where it takes him, and I think it’s very important he be allowed to do his job without interference, and there are many Republicans who share my view.”

Among them was Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a sharp critic of Mr. Trump who appeared on the same program. “People see that as a massive red line that can’t be crossed,” he said. He urged Mr. Trump’s advisers to prevail on him not to fire Mr. Mueller. “We have confidence in Mueller.”

And there was more:

Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said if the president was innocent, he should “act like it” and leave Mr. Mueller alone, warning of dire repercussions if the president tried to fire the special counsel.

“I would just counsel the president – it’s going to be a very, very long, bad 2018, and it’s going to be distracting from other things that he wants to do and he was elected do,” Mr. Gowdy said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Let it play out its course. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible.”

The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, issued a statement likewise warning Mr. Trump to back off. “As the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman.

On the other hand:

His counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had no comment, as did a number of other top Senate Republicans.

Late in the day, the White House tried to douse the furor. “In response to media speculation and related questions being posed to the administration, the White House yet again confirms that the president is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller,” Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer, said in a statement.

But on another other hand:

The president’s tweet followed a statement by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, on Saturday calling on the Justice Department to end the special counsel investigation. Mr. Trump followed up that evening with a tweet arguing that “the Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime.”

The two weekend tweets were the first time Mr. Trump has used Mr. Mueller’s name on Twitter, not counting a message he once retweeted, and reflected what advisers called a growing impatience fueled by anger that the investigation was now looking at his business activities.

He did say that his business activities and his tax returns were off-limits to Mueller, for what that’s worth – not much – and there’s this:

A president cannot directly fire a special counsel but can order his attorney general to do so. Even then, a cause has to be cited, like conflict of interest. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions – a former campaign adviser – has recused himself from the Russia investigation – to Mr. Trump’s continuing irritation – the task would fall to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.

But Mr. Rosenstein said as recently as last week that he sees no justification for firing Mr. Mueller, meaning that he would either have to change his mind or be removed himself. The third-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rachel Brand, knowing this issue could reach her, decided last month to step down. The next official in line would be the solicitor general, Noel J. Francisco, a former White House and Justice Department lawyer under Mr. Bush.

That’s unfortunate, at least for Donald Trump, but as for the now financially ruined but still dangerous McCabe, Trump had this to say:

“Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me,” Mr. Trump wrote. “I don’t believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?”

Ah, no:

Michael R. Bromwich, McCabe’s lawyer, fired back, by accusing the president of corrupting the law enforcement system. “We will not be responding to each childish, defamatory, disgusting and false tweet by the President,” he wrote on Twitter. “The whole truth will come out in due course. But the tweets confirm that he has corrupted the entire process that led to Mr. McCabe’s termination and has rendered it illegitimate.”

This is not going well for Donald Trump, and much of this is new, and the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman suggests why:

For months, President Trump’s legal advisers implored him to avoid so much as mentioning the name of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, in his tweets, and to do nothing to provoke him or suggest his investigation is not proper. Ignoring that advice over the weekend was the decision of a president who ultimately trusts only his own instincts and now believes he has settled into the job enough to rely on them rather than the people who advise him.

A dozen people close to Mr. Trump or the White House, including current and former aides and longtime friends, described him as newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him. That self-confidence has led to a series of surprising comments and actions that have pushed the Trump presidency in an ever more tumultuous direction.

Something has changed:

Long wary about publicly expressing his belief in the death penalty for drug dealers, he proposed it at a rally in Pennsylvania. “Probably you will have some people that say that’s not nice,” he said.

He bragged about making up an assertion in a conversation with the leader of a close ally, Canada, and called a reporter a “son of a bitch.”

He barreled ahead with a plan to meet with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to the dismay of much of the diplomatic corps.

He vanquished the economic aides he had previously seen as having more stature than he did by announcing he would go ahead with tariffs on certain imports, alarming key allies.

And then this weekend he seemed to raise the possibility of dismissing Mr. Mueller.

One thing does lead to another, and Haberman offers this:

Projecting strength, control and power, whether as a New York developer or domineering reality television host, has always been vital to Mr. Trump. But in his first year in the White House, according to his friends, he found himself feeling tentative and anxious, intimidated by the role of president, a fact that he never openly admitted but that they could sense, people close to the president said.

This, after all, is someone for whom leaving the security of Trump Tower and moving to Washington and the White House was a daunting prospect. Even now, as he has grown more comfortable in the job, he rarely leaves the White House unless he is certain the environment will be friendly, such as at one of his own properties. Rallies are rarely scheduled in areas that could invite large protests.

But those days may be over:

For months, aides were mostly able to redirect a neophyte president with warnings about the consequences of his actions, and mostly control his public behavior.

Those most able to influence him were John F. Kelly, the retired Marine general turned chief of staff, and Gary D. Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive and director of the National Economic Council. And few people had more ability to blunt the president’s potentially self-destructive impulses than Hope Hicks, his communications director, who has been one of his closest advisers since the earliest days of his 2016 campaign.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies have said that Mr. Trump was trapped in a West Wing cage built by Mr. Kelly, and has finally broken loose.

Now add this:

The reality is more complicated, his closest aides say. They say Mr. Trump now feels he doesn’t need the expertise of Mr. Kelly, Mr. Cohn or Rex W. Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil executive he made secretary of state. If he once suspected they were smarter or better equipped to lead the country and protect his presidency, he doesn’t believe that now.

Two of those men are now on their way out. And Mr. Trump has an ambiguous relationship with the third, Mr. Kelly, whom he alternately assures that his job is secure and disparages to other people. Ms. Hicks is leaving the White House in the coming days, a departure that has caused concern among his allies about how he will cope without her in the long term.

Well, she’s as good as gone, and this vain man, who needs no one else’s stupid expertise, is blissfully alone now:

Outside the White House, there are few friends the president will listen to. Some of them warned him to back off his tariffs plan, telling him that he would undo what he had accomplished with the tax bill. Mr. Trump said he didn’t agree, and that was that.

But Mr. Trump’s moods have always been like storm clouds passing quickly over a desert island, and aides say that has not changed. Contrary to descriptions of a constantly fuming, beleaguered president, friends and advisers say Mr. Trump is more at ease than he has been in some time. What seems like unchecked chaos to almost everyone else is Mr. Trump feeling he is in his element.

“He seems more relaxed, believe it or not,” said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who spent several hours with the president during two St. Patrick’s Day events on Thursday.

On the other hand again:

Some worried aides are less sanguine. They view the weekend’s attacks on Mr. Mueller and the FBI as a particularly disturbing taste of what they believe could come. They say privately that Mr. Trump does not understand the job the way he believes he does, and that they fear he will become even less inclined to take advice.

As for Hope Hicks, the former teen fashion model who became his communications director, Olivia Nuzzi offers an almost book-length review was that was all about, including this detail:

What her office lacked in flair it made up for in proximity. While others were left wondering what the president was thinking, Hicks could often hear him shouting, even with her door closed. “Hope!” he’d scream. “Hopey!” “Hopester!” “Get in here!”

Many requests were mundane. “He doesn’t write anything down,” one source close to the White House told me. “He doesn’t type, he dictates. ‘Take this down, take this down: Trump: richest man on Earth.'” A second source who meets regularly with the president told me that Hicks acted almost as an embodiment of the faculties the Trump lacked – like memory. “He’ll be talking, and then right in the middle he’ll be like, ‘Hope, what was that … thing?'” When the name of a senator or congressman or journalist came up, Trump would prompt Hicks to provide a history of their interactions, asking, “Do we like him?”

“And she fucking remembers!” (Trump has said his own memory is “one of the greatest memories of all time.”) “She’s the only person he trusts,” the second source continued. “He doesn’t trust any men and never has. He doesn’t like men, you see. He has no male friends. I was just with one of them the other day, someone who’s described as one of his closest friends, and he doesn’t know him very well. But a small number of women, including his longtime assistant back in New York, he really listens to them – especially if he’s not banging them. Because, like a lot of men but more so, Trump really does compartmentalize the sex and the emotional part.”

But she had enough of that:

Over dinner in Bedminster in early August, she told Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump that she was unhappy. She’d thought that being in the White House would feel different than the campaign, but instead, surrounded by eccentrics, maniacs, divas, and guys from the Republican National Committee who seemed to think they were managing a Best Buy in Kenosha, it was somehow sicker there in the stillness of it all. She suggested removing herself from the belly of the psychodrama to work elsewhere in the administration. Sharing her frustrations, Jared and Ivanka engaged her idea with caution; they asked her to give General John Kelly, the new chief of staff, a chance to change the West Wing for the better.

But as time went on, it became clear that the sickness was a feature – that anyone who entered the building became a little sick themselves. And no matter how dead any of the eccentrics or maniacs or divas appeared to be, how far away from the president their status as fired or resigned or never-hired-in-the-first-place should have logically rendered them, nobody was ever truly gone. The people who were problems on the campaign or on the inside continued to be problems. The president’s taste for the other and the new was so established that the most driven among them knew that all they had to do was wait for an opening, or shrewdly create one – a weakened staffer, a particularly demoralizing news cycle – and they could worm their way back in. The madness engulfing the White House, in other words, was not just a matter of staff infighting or factional ideological rivalries, as it was often portrayed in the press, but also, in part, the result of manipulation from the fringes of Trumpworld. In early December, Hicks had seriously considered resigning again. When her apartment’s annual lease came up for renewal, she couldn’t bring herself to sign the papers. Instead, she signed a six-month lease at a significant cost-inflation.

But that wasn’t easy:

Over the weekend, she had sketched out in her notebook various courses of action and how they might play in the press. If she resigned immediately, the assumption would be that it was the result of the bad news that had defined the winter. There was the question of her legal exposure in the special-counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the election; already, she’d been interviewed by Robert Mueller and had appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “She’s never failed to impress me, and I’m not an easy guy to impress, historically. I’m not a cheerleader,” White House counsel Ty Cobb told me. “She’s sort of the last person on my list that I worry about.” Yet Hicks surfaced at pivotal moments that were of interest to investigators, and she was now being mentioned along with phrases like obstruction…

Yet, if she waited, she probably couldn’t avoid the impression that she was leaving because of a crisis, because there was always a crisis. If she’d resigned in August, they’d have said it was owed to Charlottesville. In December? Mueller or Roy Moore. January? Fire and Fury. From a public-relations perspective, there would never be a right moment to leave, but public relations as it’s traditionally understood had almost no relevance in this White House. By Sunday, her gut had decided for her what her head couldn’t.

When the president returned from the Capitol around noon, Hicks opened her office door, which clasps with a ring at its center, and walked about ten feet to her right, into the Oval Office. Before she could finish resigning, Trump interrupted her. He told her that he cared about her happiness, and that he understood her decision, and he would help her do anything she wanted to do in her life. He said he hoped she would go make a lot of money. He also said he hoped that she would come back at some point.

Then the president added something else: “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through.”

One day he may say that to the country – but probably not – and this woman was a bit naïve:

She didn’t overanalyze her decision to join the campaign, thinking of it almost the way you’d think about a semester studying abroad. “The feeling was, you know what? I’m just going to roll with it. Let’s see what happens until the election,” a source who has known her since before the campaign told me. “She wasn’t someone who was in it for the politics. She was in it because of the person, and the relationship with the family, and the experience.”

She got her experience, and now we get the same:

In terms of ambience, Washington is unlikely to feel much different without Hicks around; she wasn’t exactly Sally Quinn, hosting salons or hitting the embassy party circuit, and the Daily Mail still has Ivanka. But for the president, who gets out even less – he eats dinner at home, except for rare meals at the restaurant in the hotel bearing his name a few blocks away – Hicks’s decision seems like an amputation.

That’s just a bit of it – the rest is thousands and thousands of words of palace intrigue – fascinating but moot now. What is not moot, however, is that we have a president who will use the power of the federal government to ruin the life of any one citizen he chooses, and has just done that, and will publicly gloat about it, even if the whole thing does him no good, and even if that destroys this or that institution of government. He now is also convinced that he needs no one else’s stupid expertise. He may not understand the job the way he believes he does, but he has the job. That’s where we are.

Is that where we wanted to be?

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The Old World Now Gone

Life is full of changes. Sometimes you end up in Rochester, New York. That was the first job after graduate school – teaching English at prep school there – the wife’s home town. It would be fine. This was the city that Kodak built. Xerox was there too, at the time. There was the famous Eastman School of Music. David Zinman was music director of the Rochester Philharmonic. This wasn’t a backwater. This was an enlightened place, and a good sign was that the night we rolled into town and sat down to dinner with the folks, on the family farm west of the city, we watched Richard Nixon resign, on the little television out on the porch. It was a fine August evening. Things were getting better – and we eventually built a house on that farm. With two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard, now everything was easy. Things were fine.

The politics were fine too. Our congressman was a Republican, but he was Barber Conable – voted by his colleagues the “most respected” member of Congress. He refused to accept personal contributions larger than fifty dollars. He invented the 401(k) – sort of a favor to Kodak and Xerox management, being buried by their pension costs, but not a bad idea. He had been a long-time ally of Richard Nixon, but he broke with Nixon over Watergate. He was disgusted. He was the one who came up with the term “smoking gun” back in the day. He knew his stuff and wanted to get things done. Nixon got in the way. Nixon was soon gone, and Conable served ten full terms. When he retired, in 1984, Ronald Reagan appointed Conable president of the World Bank. He was more than qualified. He was just fine. They don’t make Republicans like that anymore. He was a Rochester Republican – west of the city.

But he’s gone now, and Kodak is pretty much gone, and the marriage ended, and it was off to California in 1981 – the year that Ronald Reagan was sworn in – the year when Republicans got back to race-baiting and sneering. His talk of “welfare queens” and whatnot was unpleasant. Republicans got unpleasant again.

Voters in Rochester must have known that would happen. Barber Conable, in that congressional district just west of the city, was the exception, not the rule. In their congressional district they kept reelecting a decent and thoughtful – and joyful and compassionate – liberal Democrat. They kept reelecting Louise Slaughter, but now she’s gone too:

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a folksy New York liberal who championed women’s rights and American manufacturing for more than three decades as a Democratic congresswoman, and who became a top lieutenant for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the first and only woman to lead the powerful Rules Committee, died March 16 at a hospital in Washington. She was 88 and the oldest sitting member of Congress.

But she was a pip:

The daughter of a blacksmith in a Kentucky coal mine, Rep. Slaughter traced her lineage to Daniel Boone and attacked her political opponents with a marksman’s accuracy and, not infrequently, a disarming grin.

“She’s sort of a combination of Southern charm and backroom politics, a Southern belle with a cigar in her mouth,” Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, told the Washington Post in 1992.

She was a Southern belle, who got over it:

A microbiologist with a master’s degree in public health, Rep. Slaughter moved to western New York with her husband in the 1950s and entered politics two decades later, after fighting to preserve a stand of beech-maple forest near their home in the Rochester suburbs.

She served in the Monroe County Legislature and New York State Assembly before being elected to Congress in 1986 and soon established herself as a defender of blue-collar constituents who worked for Xerox or Kodak.

Breaking with Democratic Party leaders, she argued that international trade agreements did little more than drain the United States of manufacturing jobs. When President Bill Clinton asked her to support the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), according to the Almanac of American Politics, she replied, “Why are you carrying George Bush’s trash?”

She was a bit blunt, but for a purpose:

Initially one of just 29 women in the House of Representatives, Rep. Slaughter was a flinty advocate of women’s access to health care and abortion.

She was a co-author of the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark 1994 law aimed at curbing domestic abuse and aiding its victims. In 1991, she was part of a group of seven Democratic congresswomen who marched to the Senate to demand a delay in the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

In a legislative assault she later likened to the World War II battle of Iwo Jima, she and her fellow legislators prevailed on their Senate colleagues to hear testimony from Anita Hill, a former Thomas aide who had accused him of sexual harassment.

“There’s no monolithic way that women respond to this,” she said at the time, referring to the harassment allegations. “But we are the people who write the laws of the land. Good lord, she should have some recourse here.”

Someone had to say it, and even if no one would listen to Anita Hill, and Clarence Thomas’ nomination sailed through – it was a man’s world back then – Slaughter did get things done:

Rep. Slaughter was the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, which determines when and how bills reach the House floor, and, in 2007, served as chairman for four years after Pelosi became the first female House speaker. She successfully marshaled legislation that included an ethics bill to tighten lobbying rules and later spearheaded a bill banning insider trading by lawmakers and their staff that became law in 2012. Slaughter also introduced co-legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of genetic information. The measure, which passed in 2008, was designed to prevent insurance providers from rejecting coverage for healthy people predisposed to cancer and other diseases.

And there’s this:

Among her greatest achievements was helping shepherd the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, during which she said she received a death threat and her district office window was smashed with a rock.

She remained nonchalant, however, even while inspiring Republican rage over a short-lived proposal known as “the Slaughter Strategy,” in which she considered passing the Senate version of Obamacare without an up-or-down vote – a tactic, she noted, her Republican colleagues had sometimes used themselves.

“We are about to unleash a cultural war in this country!” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) told her at the time. Using an idiom she may have drawn from her upbringing in Kentucky, she replied calmly, “I appreciate that you’re the bluebird of happiness.”

Now THAT is how it’s done, and she somehow made no enemies:

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), chairman of the Rules Committee, said Slaughter “was a force to be reckoned with, who always brought her spunk, fire and dynamic leadership to every meeting.”

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) ordered flags above the Capitol to be lowered to half-staff in memory of Slaughter.

“@LouiseSlaughter was tough, unfailingly gracious, and unrelenting in fighting for her ideas. She was simply great,” Ryan tweeted.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Slaughter loved “the debate and was an outspoken advocate,” but always showed respect for those on the other side of the issue – “an example for all Americans that we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Humor helps, and this same item notes she was also a former blues and jazz singer – so a bit of jazz helps too.

Vivian Kane has more:

She fought against the bigoted Defense of Marriage Act and was one of only 67 members of Congress to vote against DOMA in 1996. She held a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology and a Master’s in Public Health. According to her House biography, she was the only microbiologist in Congress. She authored the Genetic Information and Non-Discrimination Act, which was described by Ted Kennedy as the “first civil rights legislation of the 21st Century.” She also secured the first $500 million in federal funding for breast cancer research at the National Institute of Health.

Slaughter famously co-authored the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which not only changed our national conversation around issues of domestic violence, but saw a 67% drop in domestic violence after its passage. She later fought to expand the law’s protection of Native Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ people. On the 20th anniversary of the law’s passing, she said, “Almost two million Americans are still physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner every year. I won’t stop fighting until that number is zero.”

Slaughter was the kind of person we wish all politicians could be. A fighter for the public good committed to her constituents, who entered politics to make a real difference, and was never corrupted away from that goal.

She wasn’t the hesitant Hillary Clinton, and now she’s gone. Barber Conable is gone too. Life is full of changes. Lots of good people are gone.

Bobby Kennedy is gone – shot dead fifty years ago at the old Ambassador Hotel down on Wilshire Boulevard here is Los Angeles – now a brand new giant public school with a small pocket park honoring him. Donald Trump is still pissed about that – he wanted a build a giant Trump Tower here in Los Angeles. The city told him they wanted a school, and they had the power and legal right to build that school. He fought them, hard, and he lost, and lost a lot of money in that fight. There are many reasons Donald Trump hates Los Angeles, and California. That’s one of them too. And he obviously had no respect for Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy had been just another liberal fool. He hates liberal fools. His base hates liberal fools. But he had to settle for a golf course down in Palos Verdes, in an earthquake zone.

He didn’t get it. Bobby Kennedy was much like Louise Slaughter. He too could make his point without rancor, and bring everyone along. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, writes about that in The Inclusive Populism of Robert Kennedy and in the New York Times, offers a shorter version of how Bobby Kennedy offered liberalism without elitism and populism without racism:

In a remarkable 82-day campaign, Senator Robert F. Kennedy ran in several Democratic presidential primaries and was able to forge a powerful coalition of working-class whites and blacks, even as race riots were raging across the country, and at a time when whites were far more bigoted than they are today.

A passionate supporter of minority empowerment and a critic of the Vietnam War, Kennedy faced an uphill battle in appealing to working-class whites, who were increasingly hostile to civil rights and remained hawkish on the war. By 1968, as David Halberstam wrote in a book at the time, “The easy old coalition between labor and Negroes was no longer so easy; it barely existed. The two were among the American forces most in conflict.”

But Kennedy waited to enter the race until March 16, 1968, only after the peace candidate Eugene McCarthy had challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson and locked up the support of many young people and highly educated whites, who were pro-civil rights and skeptical of the war.

As a result, Kennedy had to try to appeal simultaneously to minority voters and white working-class constituencies who were part of the backlash against racial progress and the peace movement. This was especially true in Kennedy’s first primary state, Indiana, where Gov. George Wallace of Alabama had shocked observers four years earlier by getting strong support from white ethnic precincts when he challenged Johnson for the Democratic nomination.

But he pulled it off, and it wasn’t that hard:

Kennedy sought to build his unlikely coalition in part by running an economically populist campaign that vilified wealthy tax cheats and earned him the enmity of business leaders. “We have to convince the Negroes and the poor whites that they have common interests,” he told the journalist Jack Newfield.

But Kennedy knew that a populist economic message would not get through to working-class whites unless it was accompanied by a respect for their beliefs on issues like crime, welfare and patriotism. Gerard Doherty, one of his aides, recalled speaking to Kennedy: “I said if he was going to win, he has to conduct a campaign for sheriff of Indiana. And he did.” Coupled with strong support for civil rights, Kennedy’s message about punishing looters got through. At one point during the campaign, Richard Nixon remarked to the reporter Theodore White, “Do you know a lot of these people think Bobby is more a law-and-order man than I am!”

And there’s more:

Kennedy also campaigned on the dignity of work over welfare. In a TV commercial, he declared, “I think welfare is demeaning and destructive of the human being and of his family.” He didn’t blame “welfare queens” for cheating the system, as Ronald Reagan later would, but said he envisioned a policy of full employment in which a person could say to himself: “I helped build this country. I am a participant in its greatest public venture.”

On issues of national security, Kennedy took a principled position in opposition to the Vietnam War – whose very morality he questioned – but threaded the needle in a way that also made clear to working-class voters that he differed sharply from upper-middle-class white college students who avoided service or even sympathized with the North Vietnamese Communists. At Notre Dame, Kennedy was booed for saying college draft deferments should be abolished. “You’re getting the unfair advantage while poor people are being drafted,” he said. Remarkably, in Indiana he polled as well among those who favored Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War as he did among those who opposed it.

Kennedy’s campaign to woo working-class voters across racial lines worked. The candidate most identified with advancing civil rights did well not only with black and Hispanic voters but also among working-class whites, some of whom had supported Wallace’s segregationist candidacy in 1964.

Even with Louise Slaughter gone, Kahlenberg thinks that sort of thing is still possible:

Kennedy’s appeal was based in part on being the brother of a revered and martyred president, of course, and the most salient issues were different in 1968 than they are today. But Kennedy stressed fundamental themes that travel across time and transcend specific policy issues.

First, to appeal to a sizable number of white working-class voters in 1968, Kennedy did not forfeit his basic principles or change his positions on civil rights, or war and peace – and neither should progressives today. Ignoring the rights of women, gay people and people of color is both morally wrong and politically stupid if your aspiration is an inclusive populism.

And there’s this:

Second, progressives should fight for economic justice in a manner that is relentless rather than episodic. On the campaign trail, Kennedy consistently hit themes of economic inequality and named the names of wealthy individuals, like the oil tycoon H. L. Hunt, who paid little in taxes. By contrast, in the final weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton de-emphasized economic issues in favor of attacks on Mr. Trump’s qualifications, according to research by Democracy Corps and the Roosevelt Institute, and his support among white non-college voters rose considerably. Progressives also need to vigorously punish Wall Street malfeasance. It is difficult to imagine that Kennedy, a tough prosecutor, would have argued, as some members of the Obama administration did, that some companies are “too big to jail.”

And this:

Third, progressives should explicitly signal the inclusion of working-class whites in their vision for change by applying civil rights laws to issues of class inequality, consistent with Kennedy’s view that “poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color.” I have long argued that we should extend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against workers of all races engaged in labor organizing; integrate elementary and secondary schools not only by race but also by socioeconomic status; combat discrimination in housing by economic status as well as race; and adopt affirmative action programs in higher education for economically disadvantaged students of every color.

And this:

Fourth, progressives could adopt policies that respect the values of working-class people under the banner of patriotic populism, as Kennedy did. They should unapologetically champion a strong American identity around the shared values espoused in the Declaration of Independence as an antidote to exclusionary white nationalism.

Louise Slaughter is no longer here, but this could work:

If Robert Kennedy, the civil rights champion, could attract Wallace voters at a time of national chaos, surely the right progressive candidate with the right message could bring a significant portion of the Obama-Trump-voters back home.

Louise Slaughter could pull that off – with humor and respect and kindness. She’d never talk about that “basket of deplorables” – but of course she’s gone. She’ll be missed.

But there might be another Barber Conable:

As Republicans face a potential Democratic wave in this year’s midterm elections, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake argued Thursday that his party “might not deserve to lead” given its support for President Donald Trump.

“If we are going to cloister ourselves in the alternative truth of an erratic leader, if we are going to refuse to live in a world that everyone else lives in then my party might not deserve to lead,” the Arizona senator said in a speech at the National Press Club.

Flake argued that “as we are discovering there is no damage like the damage that a president can do.” He repeated a call he’s been making for months to restore civility to politics during the Trump era, using lofty rhetoric to describe what he hopes will one day be a reckoning for American politics.

“If one voice can do such profound damage to our values and to our civic life,” he said, “then one voice can also repair the damage, one voice can call us to a higher idea of America, one voice can act as a beacon to help us find ourselves once again after this terrible fever breaks – and it will break.”

Conable turned on Nixon and Flake turned on Trump:

His stunning rebuke of a president from his own party has many speculating that Flake may launch a GOP primary challenge against Trump in 2020 – an idea further fueled by the fact that Flake will stop in New Hampshire on Friday. Flake has repeatedly said he’s not ruling out the idea of a presidential run, though it’s not in his current plans.

“Those who vote in Republican primaries are overwhelmingly supportive of the President,” he said Thursday. “I think that could turn and will turn and must turn…”

Life is full of changes. Sometimes you do end up in Rochester, New York.

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Prometheus Unbound

Everyone wants to be a hero. The Romantic poets – Keats, Byron and Shelley – saw themselves as heroes. They felt deeply, they thought deeply, and their poetry was, they seemed to think, going to light up the world. They were often-misunderstood geniuses. One day people would get it. That’s why Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound in 1820 – his version of the tale of Prometheus, who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity, and pays the price. Prometheus is subjected to eternal punishment and suffering at the hands of Zeus for doing that, and this is a bit different from Aeschylus’ version. Aeschylus had Prometheus and Zeus work things out. Mankind could have fire – a symbol for knowledge and insight and progress and whatnot. That might be best – but in the Shelley version all the other gods abandon Zeus and they release Prometheus. It’s a coup d’état. Prometheus is the new leader on Mount Olympus. He brings knowledge and insight and progress to everyone – and of course Shelley saw himself as Prometheus. Shelley had a heathy ego, or he was a pretentious twit. Egos can be too healthy.

That’s a problem. Donald Trump may see himself as Prometheus, here to enlighten and free mankind. He did say that no one knew that health care was really complex until he looked into that himself and discovered that himself, so he could enlighten the rest of us. Eyes rolled. Everyone knew. He wasn’t Prometheus bringing fire to humanity’s darkness, but he does say he’s damned smart.

Last October, Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College – Obama’s undergraduate school – reviewed those claims:

During an impromptu news conference outside the White House last Wednesday, a reporter asked Donald Trump whether he should be more civil.

“Well, I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” the president said, and then quickly switched the topic from his manners to his mind.

“You know, people don’t understand. I went to an Ivy League college. I was a nice student. I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.”

That’s what he always says:

Throughout his career, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he’s both well-educated and brainy. Each time, it isn’t clear if he’s trying to convince his interviewers or himself.

In a 2004 interview with CNN, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I got very good marks. I was a good student. It’s the best business school in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”

During a 2011 interview with ABC, Trump said: “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country.”

On May 8, 2013, Trump tweeted: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure. It’s not your fault.”

And there’s more:

During a speech in Phoenix in July 2015, a month after announcing he was running for president, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I’m, like, a really smart person.”

The next month, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump described Wharton as “probably the hardest there is to get into.” He added, “Some of the great business minds in the world have gone to Wharton.” He also observed: “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time – the super genius of all time!”

In December, Trump told Fox News’ Chris Wallace why he intended to be the first president since Harry Truman to avoid getting daily updates from intelligence professionals about national security threats. “I’m, like, a smart person,” he explained.

Dreier has much more and this too:

A linguistic analysis by Politico found that Trump speaks at a third-grade level. A study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University compared last year’s Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in terms of their vocabulary and grammar. Trump scored at a fifth-grade level, the lowest of all the candidates.

He’s not Prometheus, but he more than once said this – “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”

Does he? How would he know? He actually does get daily updates from intelligence professionals about national security threats – when he can fit them in. Those are the Presidential Daily Briefings, but he hates them, and our intelligence professionals now know to keep them simple – a few bullet-points and maybe a map. He doesn’t read things. He doesn’t like reading. And they now know not to mention Russian meddling here and there. He doesn’t want to hear it. That sort of thing makes him very angry. He won the presidency fair and square. He’ll walk out of the room. Even worse, he’ll tweet. Our intelligence professionals know better now.

Keep the man calm or we’ll all die. That’s the idea, but the man does think of himself as, like, a smart person. He may be the super genius of all time after all. He may be Prometheus bringing fire to humanity’s darkness, and now he’s certainly unbound.

Something is up. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have nineteen anonymous sources in the White House they talk to all the time, staffers who unload their concerns, to warn the nation, as long as the Post’s reporters don’t use their names. They don’t want to lose their jobs. But they’re worried. Trump is now unbound:

President Trump has decided to remove H. R. McMaster as his national security adviser and is actively discussing potential replacements, according to five people with knowledge of the plans, preparing to deliver yet another jolt to the senior ranks of his administration.

Trump is now comfortable with ousting McMaster, with whom he never personally gelled, but is willing to take time executing the move because he wants to ensure both that the three-star Army general is not humiliated and that there is a strong successor lined up, these people said.

In short, Trump knows more than the general, or the generals, but he’ll be nice to him, maybe. He does lose his temper at times, but there’s more:

The turbulence is part of a broader potential shake-up under consideration by Trump that is likely to include senior officials at the White House, where staffers are gripped by fear and uncertainty as they await the next move from an impulsive president who enjoys stoking conflict.

He also enjoys something else:

For all of the evident disorder, Trump feels emboldened, advisers said – buoyed by what he views as triumphant decisions last week to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and to agree to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The president is enjoying the process of assessing his team and making changes, tightening his inner circle to those he considers survivors and who respect his unconventional style, one senior White House official said.

He’s the new Zeus on Mount Olympus now. He can do anything he wants – no one can stop him now:

Before the Washington Post report was published, a White House spokesperson checked with several senior White House officials and did not dispute that the president had made a decision. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly – who has personally been eager to see McMaster go – has also told White House staff in recent days that Trump had made up his mind about ousting McMaster.

Just days ago, Trump used Twitter to fire Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state whom he disliked, and moved to install his close ally, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, in the job. On Wednesday, he named conservative TV analyst Larry Kudlow to replace his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who quit over trade disagreements.

And on Thursday, Trump signaled that more personnel moves were likely.

Everyone is the White House seems to know what that means:

The mood inside the White House in recent days has verged on mania, as Trump increasingly keeps his own counsel and senior aides struggle to determine the gradations between rumor and truth. At times, they say, they are anxious and nervous, wondering what each new headline may mean for them personally.

But in other moments, they appear almost as characters in an absurdist farce – openly joking about whose career might end with the next presidential tweet. White House officials have begun betting about which staffer will be ousted next, though few, if any, have much reliable information about what is actually going on.

Many aides were particularly unsettled by the firing of the president’s longtime personal aide, John McEntee, who was marched out of the White House on Tuesday after his security clearance was abruptly revoked.

“Everybody fears the perp walk,” one senior White House official said. “If it could happen to Johnny, the president’s body guy, it could happen to anybody.”

Careers might end with the next presidential tweet. Like Shelly’s Prometheus, Trump is unbound, and there’s this:

Trump recently told Kelly that he wants McMaster out and asked for help weighing replacement options, according to two people familiar with their conversations. The president has complained that McMaster is too rigid and that his briefings go on too long and seem irrelevant.

Trump does know better, somehow. No one knows how, and there’s this:

Several candidates have emerged as possible McMaster replacements, including John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff of the National Security Council.

Zack Beauchamp has the run-down on John Bolton:

John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration, is one of the most radically hawkish voices in the American foreign policy conversation. He has said the United States should declare war on both North Korea and Iran. He was credibly accused of manipulating US intelligence on weapons of mass destruction prior to the Iraq war and of abusive treatment of his subordinates. He once “joked” about knocking 10 stories off the UN building in New York.

This might be a bad choice:

The first thing to note is that Bolton would, according to a trio of foreign policy experts from different political affiliations that I spoke to, be a disastrous choice. His track record in government, connections to anti-Muslim groups, and stated views in op-eds and public speeches all suggest that he would push Trump to take extremely dangerous positions on issues like North Korea, Iran, and ISIS.

“I operate on the assumption that John Bolton should be kept as far away from the levers of foreign policy as possible,” says Christopher Preble, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “I think I would rest easy if he was dog catcher in Stone Mountain, Georgia. But maybe not.”

Second, the fact that Bolton seems to already have Trump’s ear – you don’t get an Oval Office invitation just to chat – illustrates a fundamental and growing problem with the Trump administration. The president is extremely and fundamentally influenced by the conservative infotainment sphere, most notably Fox News – where Bolton is an on-air fixture.

Bolton, a marginal figure in Washington foreign policy circles since his departure from the Bush administration, has managed to become influential again because of his success in the insular world of conservative media and advocacy groups. As a result, American foreign policy may be soon be shaped by someone who seems to truly believe that war is the answer to the world’s most pressing problems.

Beauchamp notes this too:

It wasn’t until the George W. Bush administration that Bolton rose to greater prominence. In May 2001, Bush appointed him to be undersecretary of state for arms control, basically the top diplomat focusing on weapons of mass destruction. This position became fairly important in the run-up to the Iraq War, as the Bush administration’s case against Saddam Hussein focused on his alleged nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Bolton took the hardest of possible lines. He forcefully argued that Iraq had WMDs – “We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction,” as he put in one 2002 speech…

He was involved in shaping US intelligence in the run-up to the war – and not in a good way. In 2002, Bolton’s staff prepared a speech alleging that Cuba had an active biological weapons program. This wasn’t true, and the State Department’s lead bioweapons analyst at the time would not sign off on the claim. Per the analyst’s sworn testimony to Congress, Bolton then called the analyst into his office, screamed at him, and then sent for his boss. In this conversation, per the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, he derisively referred to the analyst as a “munchkin” and attempted to get him transferred to a different department.

Now try to imagine him managing a large staff of diverse experts in arcane security matters in odd comers of the world. Beauchamp has much more, but there is ray of hope:

Trump’s biggest problem with Bolton seems to be aesthetic. In December 2016, the Washington Post reported that Bolton was eliminated from the running for secretary of state because Trump – I swear I’m not making this up – didn’t like his mustache.

“Donald was not going to like that mustache,” one Trump associate told the Post. “I can’t think of anyone that’s really close to Donald that has a beard that he likes.”

That’s something, but the Post’s reporters note other criteria at play:

Kellogg travels with Trump on many domestic trips, in part because the president likes his company and thinks he is fun. Bolton has met with Trump several times and often agrees with the president’s instincts. Trump also thinks Bolton, who regularly praises the president on Fox News Channel, is good on television.

And then there’s the guy that will soon be gone:

Some in the White House have been reluctant to oust McMaster from his national security perch until he has a promotion to four-star rank or other comfortable landing spot. They are eager to show that someone can serve in the Trump administration without suffering severe damage to their reputation.

But heads will roll:

There has been a death watch for McMaster for several weeks. After NBC reported on March 1 that Trump was preparing to replace him, the White House dismissed that report as “fake news” – but over the past 48 hours, officials told The Post that Trump has now made a clear decision and the replacement search is more active.

Many heads will roll:

McMaster is not the only senior official on thin ice with the president. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has attracted Trump’s ire for his spending decisions as well as for general disorder in the senior leadership of his agency.

Others considered at risk for being fired or reprimanded include Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who has generated bad headlines for ordering a $31,000 dining room set for his office; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has been under fire for his first-class travel at taxpayer expense; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose agency spent $139,000 to renovate his office doors.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew attention this week when she stumbled through a pair of high-profile television interviews. Kelly watched DeVos’ sit-down with Lesley Stahl of CBS’s “60 Minutes” with frustration and complained about the secretary’s apparent lack of preparation, officials said. Other Trump advisers mocked DeVos’ shaky appearance with Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “Today” show.

Kelly’s own ouster has been widely speculated about for weeks. But two top officials said Trump on Thursday morning expressed disbelief to Vice President Pence, senior advisers and Kelly himself that Kelly’s name was surfacing on media watch lists because his job is secure. Trump and Kelly then laughed about it, the officials said.

But others in the West Wing say Kelly’s departure could be imminent, and Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has been mentioned as a possible new chief of staff.

And now everyone is jockeying for power:

Pompeo, who carefully cultivated a personal relationship with the president, had positioned himself as the heir apparent to Tillerson, whom Trump had long disliked.

Similarly, Pruitt has made no secret inside the West Wing of his ambition to become attorney general should Trump decide to fire Jeff Sessions, who he frequently derides for his decision to recuse himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

White House officials have grown agitated that Pruitt and his allies are privately pushing for the EPA chief to replace Sessions, a job Pruitt has told people he wants. On Wednesday night, Kelly called Pruitt and told him the president was happy with his performance at EPA and that he did not need to worry about the Justice Department, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The knives are out, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is a special case:

Shulkin, meanwhile, is facing mounting trouble after The Post first reported that he and his wife took a sightseeing-filled trip to Europe on taxpayer funds, including watching tennis at Wimbledon. Shulkin is now facing an insurrection at his own agency, with tensions so high that an armed guard stands outside his office.

Another episode haunting Shulkin was a trip to the Invictus Games in Canada last September with first lady Melania Trump’s entourage. Shulkin fought with East Wing aides over his request that his wife accompany him on the trip because he was eager for her to meet Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the games, according to multiple officials familiar with the dispute.

The first lady’s office explained there was not room on the plane for Shulkin’s wife, and officials said the secretary was unpleasant during the trip.

Shulkin said in an email sent by a spokeswoman: “These allegations are simply untrue. I was honored to attend the Invictus Games with the First Lady and understood fully when I was told that there wasn’t any more room for guests to attend.”

A leading contender to replace Shulkin is Pete Hegseth, an Iraq War veteran and Fox News personality who is a conservative voice on veterans’ policy, officials said.

He’ll do. Hegseth is a regular on Fox and Friends – he wants to privatize veterans’ affairs – after discharge everyone gets a monthly voucher to buy care in the open market, from for-profit providers. They get care. The providers get rich. Everyone’s happy. He’s a free-market guy. What could go wrong?

But all of this may not work out:

White House officials said there are several reasons Trump has not axed Cabinet members with whom he has grown disenchanted: the absence of consensus picks to replace them; concern that their nominated successors may not get confirmed in the divided Senate; and reluctance to pick allied senators or House members for fear of losing Republican seats in special elections, as happened last year in Alabama.

Also, Trump has sometimes expressed confusion about what agencies and secretaries are in charge of what duties, a senior administration official said. For example, this official said, he has complained to Pruitt about regulatory processes for construction projects, although the EPA is not in charge of the regulations.

That’s not encouraging. None of this is encouraging. Everyone wants to be a hero, an unbound Prometheus bringing light to a dark world. Trump now feels unbound, but things are getting darker.

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The Cabinet of Curiosities

It was a different time, long ago – before everyone’s life was supposed to be laser-focused on this goal or that. It was September 1965 and it was off to college, with no particular major in mind, yet. The family expected an eventual doctor or lawyer, but the family was fine with a fine liberal arts college. Learn a little bit of everything, or a lot about everything. Become well-rounded. Choose a major – decide on the final goal – after you know a bit more about everything. That’s why liberal arts colleges used to have distribution requirements. Math and science majors had to take literature and history classes. Literature and history majors had to take math and science courses. Many would find that what they really wanted to do – and what they were actually good at doing – wasn’t what they had thought at all. And everyone had to take Economics 101 – because everyone should know how the economy works.

There was a problem with that. No one seemed to know how the economy works, and Economics 101 was taught by a strange little chubby man fresh from the University of Chicago, where he had studied under Milton Freidman, the Supply-Side guru – and this strange little man was perpetually hung over, with his yappy little dachshund by his side – and the class was at eight in the morning. The talk of the importance of controlling the money supply and the velocity of money – an odd concept – was stultifying. And the supply-side stuff was odd. Lower taxes and keep wages as low as possible so corporations will be able to make lots of stuff and the economy will soar. What about demand? With low wages no one will be able to buy all that stuff. The economy will tank. No, corporations will be rolling in cash and the wealth will trickle down somehow. The wealthy will spend that loot. That will employ a ton of people. Everyone will thrive.

We all rolled our eyes – and the yappy little dog didn’t help – but we all took notes and passed the tests – and moved on. We had been well-rounded, but most of us decided that economics was a bit of a joke. Like sociology – another distribution requirement – economics wasn’t a science. It was just people talking.

Let them talk. Years later it would be that Laffer Curve – describing how things really work, in a counterintuitive way. It may make no sense, but against all odds, lowering if not eliminating taxes, at least many of them, results in a sudden dramatic and then sustained massive increase in tax revenues for the government. Everyone pays less, but as the economy grows, lots more people will now pay something, and government revenues will soar. Tax cuts more than pay for themselves. That’s the fact the supply-side guys say you cannot ignore – or you’ll find yourself billions of dollars short and you’ve blown up the deficit because you have to borrow to make ends meet.

That’s what usually happens. That’s what happened the first time this was tried – the deficit exploded under Reagan. Now there’s a general agreement that this might have been one of the all-time worst ideas in economics – see Five Critiques of Arthur Laffer’s Supply-Side Model Show Tax Cuts as Junk Economics for the dismal details. Ronald Reagan made supply-side economics a household phrase. He promised an across the board reduction in income tax rates and an even larger reduction in capital gains tax rates. When competing with Reagan for the Republican Party presidential nomination for the 1980 election, George H. W. Bush sneered at Reagan’s supply-side policies, calling them “voodoo economics” – but he gave in. He had to, to win the Republican nomination in 1988, and he lost in his re-election bid in 1992 when, after buying into the counterintuitive – Read my lips! No new taxes! – he then raised taxes. He had to raise taxes to keep the government running. Oops.

And see this:

On January 3, 2007, George W. Bush wrote an article claiming “It is also a fact that our tax cuts have fueled robust economic growth and record revenues.” Andrew Samwick, who was Chief Economist on Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2003-2004 responded to the claim:

“You are smart people. You know that the tax cuts have not fueled record revenues. You know what it takes to establish causality. You know that the first order effect of cutting taxes is to lower tax revenues. We all agree that the ultimate reduction in tax revenues can be less than this first order effect, because lower tax rates encourage greater economic activity and thus expand the tax base. No thoughtful person believes that this possible offset more than compensated for the first effect for these tax cuts. Not a single one.”

So there you have it. Reagan went for the counterintuitive and blew up the deficit. The first Bush gave it a go – and he had to back down and leave that alternative universe so that the government didn’t go broke. And the economists working for his son sat around and talked about how the whole thing was pretty much a farce – not one of them believed this cut-taxes-to-raise-revenue crap ever worked. That was just people talking, but that’s still orthodoxy on the Republican side. Sure, it’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.

Donald Trump thinks so:

President Trump loves big personalities, live television, the stock market and loyalty. In choosing Larry Kudlow, a CNBC television commentator, to serve as the next director of the National Economic Council, he has checked all those boxes.

Mr. Kudlow, often clad in a pinstripe suit and colorful tie, is a frequent pundit on the financial news channel where he opines about everything from the economy to the stock market to tax cuts and free trade. He is an unabashed prognosticator who relishes making the kinds of provocative statements that Mr. Trump has turned into an art form. He has lamented “growing government dependency,” touted tax cuts for the wealthy and lavished praise on high-flying corporate executives.

Mr. Kudlow will assume the role of Mr. Trump’s top economic adviser, replacing Gary D. Cohn, who said he would resign after losing a battle over the president’s longstanding desire to impose large tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

And he’s a true supply-side guy:

Mr. Kudlow is a radio and television commentator and an economic consultant. He was a zealous convert to the supply-side economic policies that swept the Republican Party in the late 1970s. He is a protégé of the supply-side economist Arthur Laffer, with whom Mr. Kudlow worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. Mr. Kudlow went on to serve in Mr. Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget.

Like many past National Economic Council directors, he is not an academically trained economist – he studied for a master’s degree at Princeton University but did not earn one – but he served as chief economist for Bear Stearns and made a name advising prominent conservative politicians. In the early 1990s, Mr. Kudlow took a leave from the firm to enter treatment for drug and alcohol addiction; his colleagues said he abused cocaine.

He says he’s clean now, and although he’s not a real economist, he has played one on television for years. Bear Stearns went belly-up in March 2008 – what was left of it was sold to JPMorgan Chase. That’s where he had been chief economist. This was an odd pick, but it’s more than that. He doesn’t like Trump’s tariffs, and now he’s tap-dancing a bit:

Mr. Kudlow, who has publicly criticized the president’s recently announced tariff plans, said Mr. Trump had a more nuanced view on trade than many people understood.

“He regards himself as a free trader,” Mr. Kudlow said. “He does not like to create obstacles, like tariffs. But he also has to protect the U.S. And he feels that many countries” have engaged in unfair trade practices. Mr. Kudlow cited China as a prominent example, expressing a view that is widely held within the administration. The White House has taken a series of steps to curb China and is expected to announce tariffs on certain Chinese products in the coming weeks.

Mr. Kudlow has long espoused a traditional conservative embrace of free trade, but it remains to be seen how vocally he will push back on the growing ascendance of West Wing advisers who are trade skeptics and have urged Mr. Trump to adopt protectionist measures to protect American industry.

But he is a Trump guy:

Mr. Kudlow was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Trump’s run for the presidency, advising the neophyte candidate on economic issues and pushing him to go big on cutting taxes. The men agreed on their desire for growth-goosing tax cuts but disagreed on trade, on which Mr. Trump ran as a populist and Mr. Kudlow preached free-market principles.

Mr. Kudlow criticized the president after the emergence of the “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016. He later re-endorsed him, but Mr. Trump, who nurses grudges, was angry for some time, according to people close to him.

Trump got over that, because tax-cuts are wonderful:

After Republicans pushed a $1.5 trillion cut through Congress late last year, Mr. Kudlow praised it effusively, predicting it would usher in long-term annual growth of 3 percent to 4 percent – a more optimistic assessment than most independent economists have offered – and would help Republicans in this year’s midterm elections.

The voodoo is back, and Jared Bernstein, the former chief (real) economist to Vice President Biden, and now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, adds this:

My old friend and longtime CNBC colleague Larry Kudlow is taking the helm of President Trump’s National Economic Council (it’s a political appointment; no congressional approval required). A few folks have asked me for my take on the appointment, so here it is.

First, however, let me point out that while we’ve been on opposing sides of many debates over the past 20-plus years that I’ve been arguing with Larry, we’re good colleagues and friends. In these divisive days, I think that says something fundamentally positive about him.

And the job is hard:

The NEC is basically command central for the administration’s economic policy. It sits atop and runs the White House economic policy process. The sway of the council and its leader varies with presidents and personalities. Kudlow’s predecessor, Gary Cohn, appeared to have some real heft in policy negotiations, at least until he didn’t (the tariffs), at which point, he left. Knowing Kudlow, he’ll be a powerful NEC chief who will have the president’s ear. Though, of course, Trump himself is always a wild card in every aspect of the presidency.

Bernstein feels for the guy. Kudlow is a nice guy and a good listener, but there’s this:

Kudlow is a die-hard, supply-side, trickle-down tax cutter. In fact, he played a behind-the-scenes role in crafting the Republican tax plan, which was, broadly speaking, much in his image. For as long as I’ve known him, we’ve had pretty much the same argument about the folly of this approach. I’d say he’s impervious to the clear, strong evidence that tax cuts come nowhere close to paying for themselves and that growth estimates from the recent tax plan that he and others have touted are wildly optimistic.

Simply put, anyone who’s ever heard Kudlow knows that like most adherents of this discredited school of Laffer-esque tax policy, he hugely overestimates the supply-side benefits – more labor supply, capital investment and productivity growth – of tax cuts.

And for some reason Kudlow believes in a strong dollar:

Another misguided concept of which I’ve been unable to disabuse Kudlow is his willing subjugation to his ruler, King Dollar. It’s always curious to hear these alleged free-market types assert that when it comes to the dollar, they’re not so comfortable with markets setting the exchange rate. They want a strong dollar, dammit, and that’s it. That doesn’t make economic sense, especially as a declining dollar can be an important, export-supporting adjustment in weak economies. But I’ve always thought Kudlow’s motivation here is that he believes the strong dollar boosts dollar-based assets, and the man loves little more than a rising stock market.

And then there’s the matter of the financial markets:

I’ve tried, with slight success, to get Kudlow to recognize that a rising stock market doesn’t do much for the middle class and poor. This was the substance of our last on-air argument, in fact, when he was trying to convince me that all those share buybacks generated by the tax plan – which, for the record, I warned him about – would help working-class people through their retirement accounts. But the best work on this question, by economist Ed Wolff, shows that even including retirement account holdings, the bottom half of households own almost no stock at all. Conversely, 84 percent of the value of the market is held by the richest 10 percent of households.

And there is this:

Kudlow is a big advocate of globalization. He hated Trump’s tariffs, though he eventually said something positive about sanctions on China for dumping steel. But any such conversions are new for Kudlow. In our arguments, I’ve long been the one to underscore justifications for targeted duties on trade partners who dump products or manage their currencies to get a trade edge on us. I suspect he’s trying to find his way vis-a-vis Trump in this space. Good luck with that.

But it may not matter:

At the end of the day, and especially given his trickle-down fantasies, it’s hard to imagine that Kudlow’s National Economic Council will alter the fundamental economic flaw of the Trump administration: the fact that they’ve consistently betrayed the working-class people who helped put them in the White House. That said, Kudlow is a grown-up and will hopefully be someone who can get between Trump’s worst instincts and the rest of us.

Dana Milbank doubts that is true:

It was the eve of the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. Many on Wall Street worried that a recession loomed and that the housing bubble was bursting.

And then there was Larry Kudlow, the man President Trump just tapped to be his top economic adviser.

“Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas, the resilient U.S. economy continues moving ahead,” Kudlow wrote on Dec. 7, 2007, in National Review, predicting that gloomy forecasters would “wind up with egg on their faces.” Kudlow, who previously derided as “bubbleheads” those who warned about a housing bubble, now wrote that “very positive” news in housing should “cushion” falling home sales and prices.

“There’s no recession coming. The pessimistas were wrong. It’s not going to happen,” wrote Kudlow. “The Bush boom is alive and well. It’s finishing up its sixth consecutive year with more to come. Yes, it’s still the greatest story never told.”

It wasn’t:

Trump has just put the country’s economic fate in the hands of the man who has arguably been more publicly and consistently wrong about the economy than any person alive.

He has been wrong:

When the economy didn’t rebound and housing continued its collapse, Kudlow pronounced, in a CNBC column on July 24, 2008, that he saw in the data “an awful lot of very good new news, which appear to be pointing to a bottom in the housing problem; in fact, maybe the tiniest beginnings of a recovery.” Stocks lost nearly half their value in the coming months.

But this man will fit right in with Trump’s cabinet of curiosities:

This is the same president, after all, who tapped to be the chief scientist at the Agriculture Department a talk-radio host who is not a scientist, named a brain surgeon to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development and floated the idea of his personal pilot as head the Federal Aviation Administration. A party planner, a bartender, a Meineke Car Care branch manager and a cabana boy all found plum administration jobs.

And those were Trump’s first choices. With Kudlow now replacing Gary Cohn, the impeccably qualified former Goldman Sachs executive, the second-stringers could make their predecessors look like Camelot.

Consider this:

2001: Kudlow writes in National Review about the George W. Bush tax cuts: “Faster economic growth and more profitable productivity returns will generate higher tax revenues at the new lower tax-rate levels. Future budget surpluses will rise, not fall.” Tax revenue falls, and the budget goes from surplus into deep deficits.

2002: Kudlow, arguing for war in Iraq, writes in National Review: “The shock therapy of decisive war will elevate the stock market by a couple-thousand points.” The market falls and the Dow Jones doesn’t get that couple-thousand-point elevation for years.

2009: Kudlow says in an interview: “President Obama is waging war on investors. He’s waging war against businesses.” In a piece in the Washington Times he warns that inflation could “ratchet higher.” The stock market and corporate profits climb to records, while inflation remains historically low.

Now, history is repeating itself. Writing in National Review in December, Kudlow embraced the Trump tax cuts, dismissed “dreary mainstream” forecasts and predicted annual growth as high as 5 percent. Echoing almost word for word his failed 2002 prediction, he forecast that “faster economic growth will generate much higher tax revenues.”

What could possibly go wrong?

By the way, in 2012, out in Kansas, Kudlow advised Republican governor Sam Brownback to implement a sweeping tax-cut plan that would produce faster growth. It didn’t, Brownback’s program was a comprehensive failure and the state is now in fiscal ruin. Sam Brownback was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on February 1, 2018 – he’s not in Kansas anymore – Trump found another place for him. Long ago, many of us decided that economics wasn’t a science. It was just people talking.

Jennifer Rubin sees a pattern here:

With the exception of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, virtually every Cabinet secretary or Cabinet-level official in the Trump administration has had multiple missteps. Some have been repeat offenders on ethics rules, others “merely” incompetent. But just how bad are they? Could a case be made that President Trump assembled the worst Cabinet in modern American history?

She asked around about that, and got this answer:

“It is not even close! We have a contingent of corrupt kleptocrats, some sadists, a racist, utter ideologues, at least one utter incompetent, another who has made as his mission devastating our diplomatic corps,” says American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein. “Other administrations have had occasional embarrassments or individuals brought down by scandal. None in our lifetimes like this. Maybe Warren Harding would be a contender.”

This is a cabinet of curiosities:

Tom Price was forced to resign from his post as secretary of health and human services after a scandal about his charter jet travel. Questions still remain about the travel of secretaries of interior, treasury and veterans affairs. VA Secretary David Shulkin seems to have lost it, accusing his staff of all manner of betrayal and posting a guard outside his office. Axios reported, “After the VA’s inspector general reported that Shulkin used taxpayer dollars to pay for his wife to go to Europe, the VA secretary has been telling anyone who will listen that Trump appointees in his agency are conspiring to undermine him. He started handling his own media relations because he doesn’t trust the agency’s communications staff.” (He does not, however, have a flag to designate his presence on site as does Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is also under fire for his rollout of an offshore drilling plan.)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos managed to alarm even the Trump White House with her jaw-dropping display of ignorance during a series of TV interviews. (White House advisers perhaps were not paying attention during her horrific performance at her confirmation hearing?)

Departing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was poorly suited for the job, never was seen as speaking for the president and managed to fail at managing both up and down.

But wait, there’s more:

Next in the rogues’ gallery is Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. His office is plagued with its own ethics scandals, wasteful spending and fierce criticism over his effort to depart from HUD’s traditional mission in enforcing nondiscrimination in housing.

Over at the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross has advocated a mind-numbingly foolish protectionist policy that has been roundly criticized by most every reputable economist, business leaders and even GOP members of Congress. And he has had his own conflict-of-interest scandal.

Aside from his travels, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has become a poster boy, along with his wife, for clueless excess. His willingness to spin for the president’s tax plan at the expense of his department’s credibility undercuts his effectiveness on the Hill and has drawn searing criticism from economists. His advocacy for a weaker dollar brought international scorn…

And there’s more:

When you drop down to other top administration appointees, the picture is equally gloomy. Office of Budget and Management Director Mick Mulvaney has been routinely ridiculed for his budget predictions and outlandish spin. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is a standout – combining climate-change denial, banishment of subject-matter experts, his objection to flying coach on “security grounds” (he later relented when “security” turned out to be the indignity of facing criticism from other passengers) and bizarre security concerns that prompted, among other things, construction of a soundproof booth.

Rubin now has her answer:

American University history professor (and accurate prognosticator of Trump’s win in 2016) Allan Lichtman tells me, “There is no question that this is the most unqualified and inexperienced cabinet in the modern history of the presidency. Several of the cabinet officials not only lack the most basic qualifications for their jobs, but are intent upon undermining the fundamental mission of their departments: DeVos at Education, Carson at HUD, and Zinke at Interior. You can also add in Pruitt at EPA.”

And now it’s Kudlow, and Rubin knows why:

Trump chose people like him – rich, contemptuous of government and skeptical of expert opinion. The number of millionaires and billionaires in the Cabinet was not by accident. Trump values the opinions of rich people and generals and few others.

Kudlow may be the man who has arguably been more publicly and consistently wrong about the economy than any person alive, but it’s all just talk:

President Trump boasted in a fundraising speech Wednesday that he made up information in a meeting with the leader of a top U.S. ally, saying he insisted to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the United States runs a trade deficit with its neighbor to the north without knowing whether that was the case…

The Office of the United States Trade Representative says the United States has a trade surplus with Canada…

Trump’s rare comments that laid bare his approach to arguing trade facts with foreign leaders show how he might try to engage with other heads of state in the coming weeks. Trump has said he will impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports as soon as next week, a steep increase in duties that could affect some of the U.S. government’s biggest trading partners.

Trump said countries can request exemption from these tariffs but only after direct negotiations with him. And the audio from the fundraiser shows how difficult these discussions could prove.

Kudlow will fit right in.

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In a Strange Land

It’s an oddly quiet evening here in Hollywood. It’s raining. That giddy guy from Pittsburgh should be singing in the rain – but it’s not like that – and that was shot on a soundstage down at MGM in Culver City in 1952 – long ago. It’s not like that. It’s just rain. It’s kind of dismal, and President Trump is in town. He finally made it to California, which Hillary Clinton carried two-to-one against him, where no Republican has been elected to statewide office in a decade, where there’s not much of a Republican Party left. He’s over in Beverly Hills at a private fundraiser, trying to cheer up those who now feel like strangers in a strange land. They’re not going to take back the state. He’ll raise a few million dollars to get himself reelected, if he can. They’ll help with that. That’s the best they can hope for – and it’s raining.

This trip was misbegotten. President Trump flew into San Diego to inspect prototypes for his Big Beautiful Wall – which he says California desperately wants. Everyone out here thinks it’s stupid. There are a hundred other ways people slip into the country – and the economy out here, and everywhere else, needs a lot of those people. He blasted Jerry Brown – a nice guy, he said, but a terrible governor. The state is falling apart. It isn’t – the state is running a surplus and everything is working just fine. Everyone hates the out-of-control high taxes. No, voters out here approved those taxes. People and companies are leaving the state, or soon will be. That isn’t happening either. Affordable housing is an issue. The homeless are an issue. California supplies more than half of the nation’s produce and climate change is about to put an end to that. There are problems, but Trump mentioned none of those. He ranted about high taxes and too much regulation – and then he hopped back on Air Force One for the short hop to Los Angeles, and then a short hop in a helicopter to Santa Monica Airport, and then the massive motorcade up to some mansion just off Mulholland Drive. He was the stranger in the strange land.

California, however, isn’t the rest of America. The rest of America is becoming a strange land, with a strange man in charge. It’s chaos out there. This was the day that Donald Trump fired his secretary of state, announced he would move the head of the CIA into that position, and he would name the second in command at the CIA to run the CIA – the woman who ran the secret “black site” torture operation in Thailand for Dick Cheney and George Bush and did what she was told – she helped destroy all evidence of what the CIA had done there. At the same time Donald Trump’s personal assistant was suddenly perp-walked out of the White House – something to do with some sort of major financial crime that no one will specify – and was immediately hired by the Trump reelection team to work for them – and the Stormy Daniels thing got worse and worse. The porn start won’t keep quiet. And Stephen Hawking died – but that had nothing to do with Trump. At the end of the evening, events just south of Pittsburgh had everything to do with Trump:

A special election for a U.S. House seat was too close to call late Tuesday as Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone were separated by several hundred votes in a race that had become a test of President Trump’s political clout.

With thousands of absentee and provisional ballots outstanding, Lamb earned 49.8 percent of votes cast and Saccone earned 49.6 percent, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press, which said the race was too close to project a winner.

A recount is possible if the candidates are separated by 0.5 percentage points or less.

Shortly before midnight, Saccone told his supporters that “it’s not over yet.”

A little more than an hour later, Lamb took the stage at his party in Canonsburg to declare victory.

It was over, and Trump hadn’t helped:

Lamb, 33, had waged an energetic campaign in the district that Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016 but that opened up after the Republican incumbent was felled by scandal. Republicans cited that scandal, along with the lackluster campaign of their nominee, Rick Saccone, to minimize the closeness of the race. The district itself will disappear this year, thanks to a court decision that struck down a Republican-drawn map.

But led by the White House, Republicans had elevated the race to a high-stakes referendum on the president and the GOP. Trump made two appearances with Saccone, including a Saturday-night rally in the district, and his son Donald Trump Jr. stumped with Saccone on Monday. The president repeatedly linked his brand to Saccone.

“The Economy is raging, at an all-time high, and is set to get even better,” the president tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!”

It seems that wasn’t the issue:

After casting her vote in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, dental hygienist Janet Dellana said she had been outraged to see Trump call for arming teachers instead of limiting access to semiautomatic weapons after the deadly school shooting in Florida.

“He flip-flops on everything, but in the end, he caters to the extreme right,” said Dellana, 64. “I am a registered Republican, but as this party continues to cater to the extreme right, they push me left.”

Someone was feeling like a stranger in a strange land, and there was this:

On the ground, unions ran an aggressive turnout operation, winning back many members who had backed Trump for president. Lamb’s campaign focused on preserving Medicare and Social Security, and warning that Republican policies would put them at risk. The United Mine Workers of America, which had sat out the 2016 election, endorsed Lamb when the Democrat promised to support legislation that would fully fund their pensions.

People want their country back. They want the strangeness to end, and that business with Rex Tillerson was strange, as David Frum notes:

The White House’s account of the Tillerson firing collapsed within minutes.

Senior administration officials told outlets including the Washington Post and CNN that Tillerson had been told he would be dismissed on Friday, March 9.

Within the hour, the State Department issued a statement insisting that Tillerson “had every intention of remaining” and “did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason.” CNN reported that Tillerson had received a call from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Friday night indicating that he would be replaced that did not specify timing; a senior White House official told the network that it was Trump himself who had suddenly decided to pull the trigger on Tuesday morning. Tillerson learned of his actual firing the same way everybody else did: By reading about it on Twitter shortly after 8:44 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 13.

This was brutal and uncourteous, but Frum notes the timing:

On March 12, Tillerson had backed the British government’s accusation that Russia was culpable for a nerve-agent attack on United Kingdom soil. If Tillerson had been fired March 9, then his words of support for Britain could not explain his firing three days before. But if the White House was lying about the timing, it could be lying about the motive.

And since it now seems all but certain that the White House was lying about the timing, it looks more probable that it was lying about the motive too.

That suspicion was accelerated by the president’s words to the White House press corps before stepping aboard Marine One – “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

That is not support for Britain. It is the direct opposite.

Trump sides with Russia again:

Britain and the United States share intelligence information fully, freely, and seamlessly. It’s inconceivable that the U.S. government has not already seen all the information that Theresa May saw before she rose in the House of Commons to accuse Russia.

If the U.S. government had a serious concern about the reliability of that information, it would have expressed that concern directly and privately to the U.K. government before May spoke. But the U.S. had no such concern – that’s why the now-fired secretary of state and the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom both endorsed May’s words. When Trump raises doubts about the facts, about American agreement with its British ally, about the accuracy of the British accusation against Russia, Trump is not expressing good-faith uncertainty about imperfect information. Trump is rejecting the consensus view of the U.K. and U.S. intelligence communities about an act of Russian aggression – and, if his past behavior is any indication, preparing the way for his own determination to do nothing.

It echoes the approach he took toward Russian intervention in the U.S. election to help elect him in 2016: Feign uncertainty about what is not uncertain in order to justify inaction.

Frum smells a rat:

Yesterday, the Republicans on the House intelligence committee announced that they had concluded the investigation of the Russian interference – and would soon publish a report acquitting Trump of collusion. Bad luck for them to release the report on the very day that Trump again demonstrated that something is very, very wrong in the Trump-Russia relationship. It’s possible to imagine innocent explanations. And it’s easy to list the plausible explanations. Ominously for the western alliance and the security of the United States, those two sets no longer overlap at all.

Perhaps the Russians have something on Trump, and there was this:

The news that President Trump had abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while he was on an overseas trip hit Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, as details trickled out throughout the day about the unclear circumstances of the ouster and what will happen in the weeks ahead.

“The State Department is in chaos,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) exclaimed to reporters, shaking his head as he stepped on the escalator in the Capitol’s basement.

Reacting to the news about Tillerson and another top State Department official fired Tuesday for contradicting the White House’s version of events, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) quipped: “At the rate this administration is hemorrhaging staff, pretty soon the President’s barber is going to play a big role in American foreign policy.”

They too felt like strangers in a strange land:

The unceremonious ouster is rankling Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill, even those who were not great fans of Tillerson’s leadership.

“It’s hard to believe that a president would be so irresponsible to fire the Secretary of State while the Secretary is overseas representing our country,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) vented to reporters Tuesday. “It’s just unfathomable that anyone would think that’s appropriate.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), while praising Tillerson’s likely replacement Pompeo, voiced concerns about the morning’s upheaval.

“It’s not a good sign when you’re fired by Twitter,” he said. “I mean, c’mon. We ought to have a better process than that. That’s just not a very respectful way to do it.”

But it had to happen:

Republican allies of President Trump were unsurprisingly supportive of the sudden cabinet shuffle, noting that it followed months of tension between Trump and Tillerson. The President repeatedly and publicly contradicted and humiliated his secretary of state, while Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning months ago.

“I think it’s important that the President and Secretary of State are on the same wavelength and I think the President now will be,” the normally tight-lipped Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) told reporters Tuesday, adding that he hopes the Senate will act swiftly to confirm Mike Pompeo to the role. “We have not just the North Korea summit coming up in the next two to three months, but the next decision about the Iran certification in two months. It’s important that the President has the team he wants in place before those two events happen.”

But that’s an issue, as is that woman:

On Iran, Pompeo is expected to support Trump’s desire to terminate the nuclear agreement crafted by the Obama administration – a break from Tillerson, who had warned ending the agreement would be extremely dangerous.

“I think it means that the likelihood of withdrawing from the agreement goes up, if you don’t change the sunset clause and deal with some other deficiencies,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters. Graham also expressed unease about the woman tapped to replace Pompeo at the CIA – Gina Haspel – whose record includes overseeing a CIA black site that waterboarded detainees during the George W. Bush administration.

“My main concern is: does she now know that those techniques are not allowed?” Graham said. “At the time, there was doubt. Today, there is no doubt. That will drive my thinking more than anything else.”

Lawmakers noted that it’s uncertain whether Haspel or Pompeo can muster the 60 votes necessary for their Senate confirmations. Even Democrats who voted for Pompeo’s confirmation to lead the CIA last year now say they have concerns.

Everyone has concerns, and the Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Damian Paletta get to the heart of the matter:

For much of his tumultuous tenure, President Trump has made impulsive, gut-level pronouncements – about dealing with Democrats on immigration, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and supporting stricter gun control – only to be walked back by his more cautious staff.

Those days, it appears, are over.

In the past two weeks, Trump has ordered tariffs on steel and aluminum imports over the fierce objections of his top economic adviser and agreed to an unprecedented meeting with North Korea’s dictator despite concerns from national security aides. On Tuesday, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had forged a tight working relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to try to rein in some of Trump’s most impetuous decisions.

That’s trouble:

Trump’s moves have shaken and alarmed a West Wing staff that fears the president has felt less restrained about acting on his whims amid the recent departures of several longtime aides, including communications director Hope Hicks and staff secretary Rob Porter. Late Monday, Trump’s personal assistant John McEntee, who had served from the earliest days of his campaign, was fired after losing his security clearance, further depleting the ranks of those the president feels he can trust.

White House allies in Washington suggested that Trump has been liberated to manage his administration as he did his private business, making decisions that feel good in the moment because he believes in his ability to win – regardless of whether those decisions are backed by rigorous analysis or supported by top ­advisers.

This, they said, is the real Trump – freewheeling by nature, decisive in the moment, unafraid to chart his own course.

And maybe this had to happen:

Other people who have worked with Trump said his recent moves are an indication that he is concerned with the state of his presidency.

“When he’s under pressure is when he tends to do this impulsive stuff,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. “That’s what I saw in the business. When he began to have pressure with debts, when the [Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City] was underperforming, is when he began acting very erratically.”

O’Donnell pointed to the increasing pressure on Trump with the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the scandal surrounding Trump’s alleged affair with a pornographic film star. “I think he likes the vision of himself being in control,” O’Donnell said. “I doubt he realizes the consequences of North Korea, just like he didn’t realize the consequences in business of walking in and firing someone at the Taj without thinking about it. It’s Trump.”

And one thing leads to another:

Critics warned that Trump was overseeing a massive consolidation of groupthink within the West Wing, driving out top advisers who have challenged him on national security and economic decisions and elevating those who confirm his protectionist leanings – a signal, perhaps, to Cabinet members that they must fall in line or be the next to go…

Attention is now focused on the fate of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has had a rocky relationship with the president and has battled an internal power struggle for months.

And if McMaster goes, all bets are off:

Eliot Cohen, who served as a State Department counselor in the George W. Bush administration, said Tillerson was the worst secretary of state in recent memory. But Cohen, who led one of the two “never Trump” letters signed by dozens of national security experts during the campaign, said Trump’s intent to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson will lead to even less internal debate.

Tillerson had dismissed the idea of direct talks with North Korea just days before Trump announced a summit with Kim Jong Un. By contrast, Pompeo on Sunday lavished praise on Trump’s strategy with Pyongyang.

“We have a very similar thought process,” Trump said of the CIA chief.

“This means conversations will be more of a never-never land than they already are,” Cohen said. “You will hear nothing faintly resembling candid disagreements.”

And this has been never-never land:

On Thursday, Trump decided on the spot during a 45-minute meeting with South Korean officials in the Oval Office that he would accept an invitation from Kim to meet for talks – stunning senior aides, including Mattis and McMaster, who warned about moving too quickly.

Jon Wolfsthal, who served as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said most presidents would have convened an interagency meeting with the relevant federal agencies before making such a momentous decision.

“A president could hear from his Cabinet about whether it was worth the risk and, if it was worth the risk, how they would make the announcement, who to inform first,” Wolfsthal said.

It didn’t work that way:

Trump asked his South Korean interlocutors to announce the news in the West Wing driveway as he hastily tried to reach the leaders of Japan and China. Tillerson, who was traveling in Africa, was represented at the Oval Office meeting by a deputy.

The following day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sowed confusion by telling reporters that the meeting was contingent on Pyongyang taking active steps to denuclearize, before one of Sanders’s aides later clarified by saying there were no preconditions to the summit.

This is not a world anyone knows, even worldwide:

The turmoil has unsettled U.S. allies and rivals across the globe.

“I think the Chinese are reeling from this presidency,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

She noted that Beijing has sought to develop ties to both Tillerson and Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has lost standing amid questions about his inability to gain a security clearance and financial debts tied to his family’s real estate business.

“The Chinese ambassador has been going around quietly seeing very senior former officials and asking them who to talk to,” Glaser said. “How can they influence this administration? Every day is a new surprise for them.”

Every day is a new surprise for everyone. We’re all strangers in a strange land now. And it’s raining. And singing in the rain won’t help at all.

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Always Ending in Farce

No one knows what Donald Trump will do next. He may plant a big sloppy wet kiss on the Kim fellow, or one on Vladimir Putin – a real one this time. To save our coal industry he may issue an executive order that all ships in our navy, including the submarines, run on coal now – lump coal – like in the good old days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet that awed the world. He will get his giant military parade too – scaled back a bit. The rows and rows of big tanks would rip up the streets in Washington – but he will have his “salute to the strongman” parade – and no one knows what one of his supporters will do next. One of them paid off a porn star to keep her quiet. Others explain that he doesn’t really mean what he says in all those unhinged tweets – and then he says he did mean just what he said, and they again say no, he doesn’t mean that at all. They have to manage his angry outbursts. The man does watch four to eight hours of cable news and gossip each day – his executive time – and that sets him off. He sees insults where there are none, or minor insults that anyone else would shrug off with a confident laugh. He shrugs nothing off – he hits back ten times harder – leaving him little time to conduct the nation’s business.

That’s a problem. No one knows quite where he stands on any issue. Outrage turns to enthusiastic support. Enthusiastic support turns to outrage. That’s a matter of who talked to him last – the high school kids who survived the recent mass shooting or the NRA – people with sad stories of those “dreamers” or Stephen Miller – and Robert Mueller is closing in. He lashes out. Stormy Daniels is closing in. He lashes out. He can’t help himself. He has one response. This has become a farce.

That word fits. That’s a word from theater. There’s the classic farce – full of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, and disguises and mistaken identities, and lots of clever and sophisticated word play, and a bit of sexual innuendo – and a fast-paced plot that only gets faster, usually ending in some sort of elaborate chase around a parlor or bedroom. There is no deep inner meaning. There are stock characters – the miser, the prig, the blowhard, the clueless husband and the oversexed and far too willing wife. They all get what’s coming to them – played for laughs. Farce is all about the joy of language and the silliness of people.

Georges Feydeau wrote the ultimate farce – A Flea in Her Ear – but that’s best in French. The ultimate farce in English is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – old, but cool. Modern farces are too dark and nasty – Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is one of those. Stick with Wilde. Algernon gets off some good lines – “And really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”

That might have stung, but farces are not political, and there’s a bit of history to that:

The Walpole administration initiated the infamous Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 heavily censuring British stages. After the Act had been passed, all plays were censured and adapted before they could be staged in one of the only two ‘licensed’ playhouses, Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Theatre.

Robert Walpole – who had been mercilessly mocked by Jonathan Swift and others for decades – was no fool. He wasn’t going to be mocked on stage too. All governments can be farcical at times, but keep that out of the theater – and it was kept out. There are few political farces. No one objected. There was enough other silliness. There was plenty to go around – and then Donald Trump came along. He brought farce back to government.

Who needs the stage? Now it’s this:

Even as the special counsel expands his inquiry and pursues criminal charges against at least four Trump associates, House Intelligence Committee Republicans said on Monday that their investigation had found no evidence of collusion between Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia to sway the 2016 election.

Representative K. Michael Conaway, the Texas Republican who is leading the investigation, said committee Republicans agreed with the conclusions of American intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered with the election, but they broke with the agencies on one crucial point: that the Russians had favored Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

“The bottom line: The Russians did commit active measures against our election in ’16, and we think they will do that in the future,” Mr. Conaway said. But, he added, “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”

In short, they were just messing with us. They didn’t care who won or lost, and they were bad at it – changing nothing. Michael Conaway is the clueless husband in the farce – nothing happened – his wife isn’t messing around on the side – and of course sent out an all caps tweet. See! No collusion! Told ya so!

Others disagreed:

The announcement brought an abrupt end to one of two remaining investigations into the topic on Capitol Hill and quickly provoked sharp objections from committee Democrats, who have warned Republicans not to close the matter before the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is done with his work.

In a statement on Monday evening, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, lamented the decision, saying that the committee had put partisan politics over fulsome fact-finding and had failed to serve American voters at a key moment in history.

“By ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the majority has placed the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country,” he said. “And history will judge its actions harshly.”

He was not alone:

American intelligence officials concluded in January 2017 that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” and pivoted from trying to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton to developing “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the agencies stood by their work and would review the committee’s findings.

The House Intelligence Committee Republicans believe the Russians, not our guys:

“We found no evidence of collusion. We found perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings,” Mr. Conaway said during a briefing with reporters on Monday afternoon. “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take this series of inadvertent contacts with each other, or meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of fictional page-turner spy thriller.”

There was bad judgment. There were inappropriate meetings. There was nothing else, but there was:

Several witnesses thought to be central to the investigation never came before the panel, including Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; Mr. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates; Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; and Mr. Trump’s former campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, all of whom are under indictment by the special counsel.

Others, including George Nader, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates with links to current and former Trump aides, only recently came to the committee’s attention.

They’d have none of that:

The investigation had made little forward progress since December, committee members said. Only three witnesses have been brought in for questioning this year – a drastic reduction in pace compared to earlier months.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats on the committee spent a month locked in an extraordinary dispute over a secret Republican memorandum that accused top FBI and Justice Department officials of abusing their powers to spy on one of Mr. Trump’s former campaign advisers.

Republicans released the document over the objections of the Justice Department and the FBI, which warned in a rare public statement that it was dangerously misleading, and many used the document to argue that the entire Russia inquiry had been tainted by anti-Trump bias from the start.

Democrats eventually wrote and released their own counter-memo, drawn from the same underlying material, to rebut the Republican document. They are likely to write their own final report, as well, outlining questions that remain unanswered.

This has all the elements of a farce, in one door and out the other, and there’s this:

In a sign of how badly relations between the two sides have broken down, Republicans on the committee briefed reporters on their initial findings on Monday before notifying their Democratic partners what was coming.

Some Democrats have signaled they would like to reopen the investigation under a Schiff chairmanship if the party wins control of the House in November’s midterm elections.

Meanwhile the Senate Intelligence Committee is chugging along, with everyone getting along just fine, and Mueller is chugging along too, closing in. This was a panic-move. The guys decided to shout – “There’s nothing going on!” That’s always the funniest line in any farce. The audience sees exactly what is going on.

Others saw that too:

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Monday that “there is evidence” showing the Russians attempted to help Trump during the 2016 presidential election, contradicting a draft report from the panel…

[CNN interviewer Erin] Burnett pointed out that “the intelligence community had said” Moscow’s intention “was to hurt Hillary Clinton,” and that the Kremlin “wanted to explicitly help Donald Trump.” Rooney responded: “Yes, I believe there’s evidence of everything that you just said.”

Still, the farce had to end:

Rooney argued that the investigation needed to end because the committee was losing its credibility. “We’ve gone completely off the rails and now we are just basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day’s news,” Rooney said. “We’ve lost all credibility and we are going to issue probably two different reports, unfortunately.”

Kevin Drum adds this:

Do I even need to tell you that Rooney is retiring this year? It’s pretty amazing what Republicans are willing to say once they decide not to run for reelection.

And that’s that. No more need be said, because there was another farce to consider:

White House officials were alarmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ struggle to answer basic questions about the nation’s schools and failure to defend the administration’s newly proposed school safety measures during a tour of television interviews Sunday and Monday, according to two sources familiar with their reaction.

Though DeVos was sworn in to her Cabinet position 13 months ago, she stumbled her way through a pointed “60 Minutes” interview with CBS’ Lesley Stahl Sunday night and was unable to defend her belief that public schools can perform better when funding is diverted to the expansion of public charter schools and private school vouchers. At one point, she admitted she hasn’t “intentionally” visited underperforming schools.

Lesley Stahl asked if she didn’t think she really should visit those schools. DeVos said maybe she could. It seems she hadn’t thought about that, but that wasn’t all:

Things worsened as DeVos continued her cable television tour Monday morning. The White House released its proposals for school safety measures after a shooting in Florida killed 17 people. Part of the proposal includes a task force to examine ways to prevent future mass shootings, headed by DeVos. Although the proposals don’t include raising the age limit to purchase firearms from 18 to 21 – as President Donald Trump once suggested – DeVos told Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “Today” show that “everything is on the table.”

“The plan is a first step in a more lengthy process,” DeVos said, adding that she does not think that arming teachers with assault weapons would be “an appropriate thing.”

This won’t be a fast and decisive thing, as Trump had promised, and she went the other way on guns:

“I don’t think assault weapons carried in schools carried by any school personnel is the appropriate thing,” DeVos said. “But again, I think this is an issue that is best decided at the local level by communities and by states.”

“The point is that schools should have this tool if they choose to use the tool. Communities should have the tools, states should have the tool, but nobody should be mandated to do it,” she said.

By that time Trump was tearing his orange hair out, and he might be bald soon:

DeVos is just the latest member of Trump’s Cabinet to come under scrutiny. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt were all scolded by officials from the White House counsel’s office and the Cabinet liaison after a series of embarrassing and questionable ethical behavior at their respective agencies.

Things aren’t going well, but this woman is special:

This isn’t the first time DeVos has made headlines. She also struggled to answer education questions during her contentious confirmation hearing before the Senate last January. At one point, she told Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy that some schools may require guns to fight off grizzly bears.

“I will refer back to Sen. (Mike) Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies,” she had said.

She spoke of “potential grizzlies” in all seriousness. Oscar Wilde wrote this scene, but she got the job:

In the end, Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie to confirm her nomination, making her the first Cabinet nominee in history to require a tie-breaking vote by the vice president to be confirmed.

That assured this farce, and Dana Milbank has a bit of fun with this:

Her interview with Lesley Stahl of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” broadcast Sunday night, is being mocked as the most disastrous televised tête-à-tête since Palin met Couric.

But this unabashed ignorance is DeVos’ hidden genius – and precisely why she is a perfect choice to be Trump’s secretary of education.

Whenever DeVos speaks, it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished…

All this proves that it is sheer (if perhaps unintentional) genius to have DeVos, who married into the Amway fortune, in her role in the Trump administration. If this is the caliber of the top education official in the land, it hardly speaks well for getting an education. People could quite reasonably conclude that education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and they wouldn’t go to all the trouble of attending school.

And that may be the whole point:

As it happens, this is exactly what Trump needs to secure the future of his political movement. For Trump, the fewer people who get an education, the better off he will be. Exit polls showed a huge education gap in the 2016 election. College graduates favored Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points, while those without college degrees favored Trump by eight points. That 17-point gap was “by far the widest” dating to 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.

The danger for Trump is more Americans are going to college. The National Center for Education Statistics, part of DeVos’ Education Department, predicts enrollment of full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, up 38 percent between 2000 and 2014, will climb an additional 15 percent by 2025.

Thankfully, DeVos is doing all she can to combat this noxious scourge of people going to school. DeVos, who once said traditional public education is a “dead end,” is proving by example as the nation’s top educator that education generally is a dead end.

Snark seems appropriate here – this is a farce after all – but Helaine Olen sees no farce:

It’s one of the marks of our Second Gilded Age that wealth is viewed in and of itself as an achievement, one so stupendous it grants the holder the right to opine on all sorts of topics about which they know very little or nothing. As a trend, this has been with us for some time, but it has become worse under the Trump administration, where the wealthiest man ever elected to the White House has appointed the wealthiest Cabinet in history.

And then there’s Betsy DeVos:

All in all, it was a wretched performance. But why would we expect it to be anything else? An heiress to one fortune and the wife to the heir of another, a product of private schools who chose to educate her children in a similar fashion, DeVos’ qualifications for the job of education secretary were never more than those of a wealthy (and not particularly well-informed) hobbyist whose pet cause was the promotion of charter schools as a solution to a problem she had limited personal experience with.

But DeVos is hardly alone, whether it comes to the Trump administration, educational policy circles or larger American culture. The idea that wealth and its companion, business success, in and of themselves bestow on their possessors greater wisdom and insight into all manner of social, political and economic problems is something that has assumed greater and greater prominence in popular culture and political circles, really since the 1980s, when CEOs and Wall Street titans were routinely profiled as all but heroes. Partly as a result, we’ve seen people such as Mark Cuban, Howard Schultz and Sheryl Sandberg held up as plausible candidates for president based on little more than their business track record.

This is particularly true in education. Nowhere has deference to billionaires operating far outside their area of expertise been more pronounced than in this field.

Olen has examples of that:

Everyone from Bill and Melinda Gates to Mark Zuckerberg to numerous hedge fund millionaires and billionaires have attempted to take on the project of improving American public schools, with mixed results at best. Zuckerberg, famously, blew through $100 million attempting to improve the schools in Newark, despite having known almost nothing about education.

But the Trump administration has taken this worship of wealth for wealth’s sake to a new level. Trump – again, the wealthiest man ever elected president, who appointed the wealthiest Cabinet and administration in American history – frequently cited his own wealth as a reason to vote for him, saying it would allow him to act in the best interest of voters because he didn’t need money.

Trump has also explicitly cited wealth as a key qualification for his Cabinet picks. “I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump explained in 2016. “It’s no different than a great baseball player or a great golfer.”

Actually, yes, it is. DeVos’ performance Sunday night is proof of that.

And that leaves only farce:

On policy, Trump often seems like a dilettante who thinks his pronouncements carry weight simply because he spent so many years giving orders in the private sector. He contradicts himself constantly and often seems, to put it gently, less-than-well-informed.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Trump didn’t realize – or perhaps didn’t care – that DeVos was manifestly unqualified to head up education policy for the United States. But if there were any doubt among anyone else, Sunday night’s performance should have finally put an end to the idea that wealth is a qualification for anyone to weigh in on – never mind have actual authority over – areas in which they have no expertise.

But there’s one silver lining:

Perhaps demonstrating this clearly for all to see will constitute one area in which the Trump administration performs a very valuable public service.

Don’t count on it. She stays. The farce continues, and there’s Karl Marx – “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

Things always end in farce. This had to happen.

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