Talking Turkey Now

At the moment the government is careering toward a shutdown. At the end of the week all authorizations for the government to spend money on anything at all expire, again – but this time no one is talking about a “continuing resolution” to keep all current authorizations in place, as is, for a few more weeks, while Republicans and Democrats work out an actual budget. Democrats want a fix to DACA and the expired CHIP program. Let those “dreamers” brought here as children, and who are now exemplary citizens, who know no other country, stay. Make sure nine million children from poor families don’t lose the only health insurance they have. Don’t let them die. Republicans say no “amnesty” for anyone, ever, and they want that big wall, and an end to all this “sanctuary city” nonsense. As for those nine million children, if Democrats don’t want them to die, Democrats will have to accept massive cuts to Medicare and Social Security. It’s one or the other. Republicans feel they have the Democrats nicely trapped on that – and there has not been much guidance on any of this from the White House. This president, alternating between something like charm and reasonableness, and fits of rage driven by an odd need for unequivocal praise for all he does, keeps changing his mind on all this.

Republicans are befuddled, Democrats have pretty much given up on him, and his recent rant about “shithole countries” didn’t help matters. A bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats came up with a plan to fix DACA and add more border security and whatnot. It was just what he said he wanted. They took their new plan to him. He exploded. Why does America have to accept immigrants from all those “shithole countries” full of black and brown people, instead of immigrants from Norway?

No one expected that. No one expected the profanity, but that was a minor matter. No one expected the overt racism. Talk of that has consumed the nation. The international outrage has crippled our diplomats everywhere too – and all the while Robert Mueller is closing in. There’s something about Trump and the Russia. That’ll come out. It won’t be pretty. It might cost Trump his presidency. Republicans will probably lose the House in the midterms at the end of the year. They may lose the Senate too. Impeachment may follow.

And then there’s the porn star, as Kevin Drum notes here:

The affair itself is not that big a deal. However, the agreement to pay Daniels $130,000 to stay quiet is a very big deal. Trump’s lawyer has admitted the payment was made, but refuses to say anything more about it. How is this happening? How can the president of the United States get away with what looks like hush money paid to a mistress in the middle of an election? How is it that this isn’t front-page news until Trump tells us what it was all about and shows us the agreement?

How is it that this isn’t front-page news? That’s easy. There’s too much news for even the largest front page, even in the tiniest font. The day-to-day is overwhelming. There’s no big picture.

But there is a big picture. Brian Klaas, a fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy – an ominous title – decided it was time to talk Turkey:

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, authoritarian despots across the globe must be feeling pretty flattered by President Trump these days. Trump’s latest efforts to distort and discredit special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia is straight out of the despot’s playbook.

In 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey – a democratically elected leader with a clearly authoritarian bent – was facing credible allegations of corruption. A truly independent investigation could threaten Erdogan’s grip on power. As arrests mounted, it became clear that the prosecutorial net was sweeping closer to the prime minister himself.

Erdogan’s political machine sprang into action. Despite overwhelming evidence of corruption among his close associates, Erdogan claimed there was none. He dismissed the investigation as a “dirty plot” by law enforcement. His supporters spoke of a “witch hunt” launched by the Turkish “deep state.” Erdogan demanded that the investigation focus not on him but on his political opponent. His supporters began to agitate about the need to “clean house” in the judiciary and law enforcement. Soon thereafter, Erdogan fired those who were investigating him.

As there, so here:

Despite evidence of at least attempted collusion with Russia, Trump declares that there was “no collusion.” Trump, like Erdogan, has repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt.” A year ago, Trump claimed that law enforcement was out to get him, comparing the FBI to “Nazi Germany.” His supporters – including Republican members of Congress – frequently refer to the Justice Department as a part of the “deep state” that needs to be “purged.” Trump has obsessively urged the FBI to turn its focus away from him and to investigate his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, instead. When Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, he openly admitted that he did so because of “the Russia thing.”

Klaas suspects Trump knows what he’s doing:

Erdogan got away with it. Turkey’s leader successfully chipped away at the limited democratic constraints on his authority by politicizing the rule of law. The investigation quietly faded. Now no one in Turkey seems interested in investigating him anymore. After winning the presidency and pushing through a referendum that gave wide-ranging powers to that office, Erdogan today enjoys unrivaled dominance of Turkey’s political system. He has become a despot.

Trump, against the advice of his advisors, immediately called Erdogan to congratulate him on getting that referendum passed, perhaps for good reason:

American institutions are stronger than Turkey’s – for now. But Republicans in Congress are doing nothing substantive to push back against Trump’s increasingly authoritarian calls to politicize the rule of law in a way that is novel in the United States but thoroughly familiar in dictatorial regimes… Trump called on Republicans to “take control” of the Russia investigation. It was a startlingly blatant and brazen demand for his political party to meddle – to Trump’s advantage – in what is supposed to be a completely independent investigation.

But the man is who he is:

As usual with Trump, such behavior is shocking but not particularly surprising. For years, he has shown us that he views the rule of law as a political weapon, not as a pillar of democracy that exists to hold leaders accountable.

He has repeatedly suggested that those he perceives as his political enemies, from Clinton to Huma Abedin, should be jailed. But jailing political opponents without indictments or evidence of criminal wrongdoing is a hallmark of banana republics, not functioning democracies.

Trump has also attacked his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for rightly and lawfully recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Had Sessions done otherwise, it would have been highly improper and a flagrant conflict of interest. Still, Trump has repeatedly said he believes that Sessions should have behaved in that inappropriate way.

Klaas say that’s the big picture:

As Trump continues to furiously tweet attacks on the FBI and peddle crackpot conspiracy theories that Clinton colluded with Russia to hack her own campaign, remember, these strategies may seem unhinged, but there’s a method to the madness. The goal is to politicize rule of law, discredit the Mueller investigation by sowing confusion among the electorate, and hope that those efforts mute the damage coming from Mueller’s eventual report or recommendation.

We know how the story ended in Turkey.

That may be our story too, and John McCain just jumped in:

After leaving office, President Ronald Reagan created the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award to recognize individuals who have fought to spread liberty worldwide. Nancy Reagan continued the tradition after her husband’s death, and in 2008 she bestowed the honor on human rights icon Natan Sharansky, who credited Reagan’s strong defense of freedom for his own survival in Soviet gulags. Reagan recognized that as leader of the free world, his words carried enormous weight, and he used them to inspire the unprecedented spread of democracy around the world.

President Trump does not seem to understand that his rhetoric and actions reverberate in the same way. He has threatened to continue his attempt to discredit the free press by bestowing “fake news awards” upon reporters and news outlets whose coverage he disagrees with. Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.

McCain sees the even bigger picture here:

This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common. Britain passed a surveillance law that experts warn chills free speech, and countries from France to Germany are looking to do the same. In Malta, a prominent journalist was brutally murdered in October after uncovering systemic government corruption. In Poland, an independent news outlet was fined (later rescinded) nearly half a million dollars for broadcasting images of an anti-government protest.

The rest is supporting detail, and McCain telling Trump to stop this right now, as unlikely as that seems. The day-to-day is too overwhelming.

E. J. Dionne puts this in a different way:

Political leaders in democracies have a few core obligations. They are charged with solving today’s problems and preparing their nations for the future. They are responsible for creating some sense of shared purpose and mutual respect among their citizens – above all a common commitment to preserving the very freedoms on which democracy depends.

Within this context, citizens exercise their right to argue about how to define the public interest, how to identify the central problems, and how to choose among competing values.

Dionne argues that this is the norm:

Given my social democratic leanings I would assert, for example, that equal opportunity – including the opportunity to participate fully in self-government – demands a far greater degree of economic security and equality than we currently enjoy. This is particularly true when it comes to access to health care, education, family time away from paid labor, and the chance to accumulate wealth.

You might push back and say that my proposals toward these ends impinge more than they should on individual freedom and require higher levels of taxation than you are willing to put up with. Or you might insist that I am focusing too much on economics and that promoting better personal values society-wide is more conducive to the nation’s well-being than any of my programs for greater equity.

And, yes, we might quarrel about who has a right to join our political community and become part of our nation. We should not pretend that our current battles about immigration are unique to our time. In the United States, we have been wrangling over immigration since at least the 1840s. I suspect (and may God preserve our republic) we will be having at least some contention around this subject in the 2140s as well.

This is fairly simple:

Such debates can be bitter, but democracy’s health depends on our ability to hold our passions against each other in check and to offer each other at least some benefits of the doubt.

As the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize in their timely new book, “How Democracies Die,” democracy requires “mutual toleration,” which is “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals,” and “forbearance,” which means that politicians “exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.”

But then there’s President Donald Recep Tayyip Trump:

Our current debate is frustrating and not only because Trump doesn’t understand what “mutual toleration” and “forbearance” even mean. By persistently making himself, his personality, his needs, his prejudices and his stability the central topics of our political conversation, Trump is blocking the public conversation we ought to be having about how to move forward.

And while Trump’s enablers in the Republican Party will do all they can to avoid the issue, there should now be no doubt (even if this was clear long ago) that we have a blatant racist as our president. His reference to immigrants from “shithole countries” and his expressed preference for Norwegians over Haitians, Salvadorans and new arrivals from Africa make this abundantly clear. Racist leaders do not help us reach mutual toleration. His semi-denial 15 hours after his comment was first reported lacked credibility, especially since he called around first to see how his original words would play with his base.

But notice also what Trump’s outburst did to our capacity to govern ourselves and make progress. Democrats and Republicans sympathetic to the plight of the Dreamers worked out an immigration compromise designed carefully to give Trump what he had said he needed.

That was a sign that we might be okay, but maybe not:

Trump blew them away with a torrent of bigotry. In the process, he shifted the onus for avoiding a government shutdown squarely on his own shoulders and those of Republican leaders who were shamefully slow in condemning the president’s racism.

Dionne is not happy:

There are so many issues both more important and more interesting than the psyche of a deeply damaged man. We are capable of being a far better nation. But we need leaders who call us to our obligations to each other as free citizens. Instead, we have a president who knows only how to foster division and hatred.

As for that book that Dionne cites, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner offers this:

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are professors of government at Harvard University who had the fun idea of releasing a new, unfortunately relevant book, How Democracies Die. (For those who find the title too sanguine, Die is written in such large letters on the cover that you have to open the book to see who wrote it.) Inside, you will find a depressingly thorough accounting of the ways in which democracy has withered at various times in various countries over the past 100 years. Much of the book focuses on things like norms breached and then disappeared; concerted attacks from anti-democratic forces on crucial institutions; and the rise of political partisanship.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are not entirely pessimistic, because they believe there are things that can be done to rescue democracies on the brink. But they leave readers in no doubt that they should be worried about the state of American democracy.

That is followed by his interview with Levitsky and Ziblatt with a few revealing nuggets like this:

Chotiner: I think we all agree Trump has very authoritarian instincts. At the same time, I think it’s pretty clear that he is not consciously thinking, “Oh I want to establish some sort of authoritarian system and this is my plan for doing so and I hope that in 2020 I am a dictator and elections are canceled.” I could be wrong, but I really don’t think he or the people around him are thinking in those terms. And that does offer me a ray of hope.

Levitsky: It’s less dangerous that Trump doesn’t have an authoritarian plan than if he did, and there are some autocrats that come to power with a plan. But there are also historically many autocrats that don’t come to power with a plan. Maybe the most obvious case to me is Alberto Fujimori in Peru. He was a political outsider, a political novice, who was elected with an anti-establishment populist rhetoric. He continued that rhetoric in office. He certainly didn’t have a blueprint but he picked fights with the judiciary, picked fights with Congress, picked fights with the media, and you had this spiraling effect in which he said scary things and the courts and Congress upped the ante and was very antagonistic toward him. And eventually, it spiraled out of control to the point where he called out the tanks. Now, Trump is not going to be able to call out the tanks. But it’s a case in which you sort of get unanticipated effects of a novice coming to power with very antagonistic discourse that scares the establishment. The establishment then pushes back. The president then feels deceived and pushes back even further. Again, Trump is not going to be able to call out the tanks, but several years of conflict between presidents and different elements of the establishment could easily weaken our democratic institutions to the point where somebody with a plan can do more damage next time.

That’s not exactly reassuring, and there’s this:

Chotiner: How do you think about the Russia investigation in this context? I think the investigation has served as a kind of lifeline for people who want to see Trump not be the president, but it’s also caused me to have two distinct varieties of fear. The first is that Mueller will say that Trump committed some very bad crime and Congress will do nothing about it, which I think in terms of a norm erosion would be extremely worrying. And the second is that the investigation will not go anywhere conclusive involving Trump, and Democrats will impeach him anyway when they get into office, which I think could also have a bad effect, although not as bad as the first option.

Levitsky: I think you’re right. There are many ways in which this can end up being problematic in terms of our democratic norms. I think the best-case scenario, which isn’t that likely, is a Nixon-like scenario in which Mueller comes up with something pretty overwhelming and a big enough faction of the Republican Party defects so that you get bipartisan consensus behind impeachment and we end up with a sort of norm reinforcing outcome. That doesn’t seem highly likely for the reasons that you say. If there is a partisan division in the reaction to the Mueller findings, which seems fairly likely given the level of partisan polarization, it will probably make things worse. The investigation provides Washington, it provides us, with a viable means to remove Trump and that’s double-edged, right? If Trump is in danger – either because he’s unfit for office or because he’s an authoritarian – that’s potentially a good thing. But any kind of irregular removal of a president before his term is a shock to the system – something that is a fundamentally destabilizing event.

Ziblatt: One way to think about impeachment is that it may become necessary, but if it’s regarded as simply a partisan tool, it’s just the next turn in the kind of death spiral of polarization where each side accuses the other side of exploiting maximum advantage. So that’s why we have to be very cautious.

Levitsky: Right, if a large enough faction of the Republican Party thinks, “Fuck you,” and interprets the impeachment of Trump as a coup, we’re in serious trouble.

In short, there’s no easy way out of this, and Matthew Yglesias puts that this way:

If Republicans hold on to both houses of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, the American system of government could very well collapse into Donald Trump’s distinctive – and disturbing – vision of a personalized, authoritarian state.

Dozens of Republicans in Congress started out skeptical of Trump but have fallen in line behind him as he signed their top initiatives into law, like a trillion-dollar giveaway to the very rich. In exchange they’ve turned a blind eye to Trump’s significant financial conflicts of interest, repeated efforts to undermine the integrity of the criminal justice process, and more. The few remaining critics plan to leave Washington.

Trump may be a bit scattered and uninformed, but Yglesias says that’s kind of impressive:

This is one of Trump’s most underappreciated political achievements of the year: consolidation of power over a party to which he had scant personal or institutional ties. And all signs are that if Republicans win in 2018, slavish loyalty to Trump will only grow more ingrained, especially because Trump himself makes no secret that loyalty to him is the key to access, and access is the key to policy influence.

So maybe it is time to talk Turkey – but that’s almost impossible now. We may have our own Recep Tayyip Erdogan now but the day-to-day is too overwhelming. Still there is the big picture, and it’s not pretty. This is how democracies die.

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The Duffer

Donald Trump may be a duffer – a peddler, especially of cheap flashy articles, or an incompetent, ineffectual, or clumsy person, and colloquially, a mediocre golfer. Of course in Australia a “duffer” is a cattle rustler – but that doesn’t apply here. Donald Trump is a golfer – by all accounts not bad at it. That makes sense given how much of his time he spends at it – but he’s still a duffer in all the other senses of the word, expect in the Australian usage. As for being incompetent and ineffectual and clumsy, an item in the New York Times sums that up:

President Trump’s incendiary words about immigration have dampened the prospects that a broad spending and immigration deal can be reached by the end of the week, raising the possibility of a government shutdown with unknown political consequences for lawmakers in both parties.

No one wants a government shutdown, but that may be unavoidable:

Democrats facing re-election in states that Mr. Trump carried in 2016 fear that a government funding crisis, precipitated by an immigration showdown, could imperil their campaigns. And they are growing increasingly uneasy that liberal colleagues eyeing White House bids are demanding that any spending bill beyond a stopgap measure that expires on Jan. 19 include protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

And on the other side:

Republicans face their own uncertainties. With their party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, they could receive most of the blame for a shutdown, even if Senate Democrats effectively block a spending plan that does not extend the immigrant protections of an Obama-era program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

“To believe that you can successfully blame Democrats for a shutdown over the DACA debate is naïve,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

And the duffer caused this mess:

The angry recriminations continued from allegations that Mr. Trump called African nations “shithole countries” during a White House meeting last week with lawmakers.

The president on Monday attacked Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat who is leading the immigration talks for his party and attended the White House meeting, as having “totally misrepresented” Mr. Trump’s comments in his public recounting of them. And two Senate Republicans, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, have raised questions over whether the term was even used, with Mr. Perdue flatly denying it had.

Mr. Graham, who admonished Mr. Trump in the meeting, has called Mr. Durbin’s account basically accurate. He took an unmistakable swipe on Monday at Mr. Perdue and Mr. Cotton.

“Since the meeting I don’t remember things differently,” Mr. Graham said. “I know what I heard, and I know what I said to the president.”

This sort of thing wasn’t in Trump’s famous book about “the art of the deal” – loose words spoken in anger, denial that those loose words were spoken, seeming confirmation that they were, followed by more detail, with everyone calling each other liars. Trump’s self-reported masterful negotiating skills may have been intentionally misreported. He’s not good at this, because things are a bit complicated:

Ten Democratic senators are on the ballot this November in states that are heavily white, have little sympathy for undocumented immigrants and that Mr. Trump won. Many of these lawmakers have no desire to force a government shutdown over an immigration issue. Some of the party’s most at-risk seats are in Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia and North Dakota.

If they side with Senate Republicans, Congress could pass yet another short-term spending bill by Friday that would end the shutdown threat for now as negotiations continue.

But some Democrats considering presidential runs, such as Senators Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, are pressing Democrats to oppose any government-funding bill – no matter how short-term – that does not also protect the approximately 800,000 young immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as Dreamers. Mr. Trump rescinded the program in September and gave Congress six months to enshrine its protections into law.

Mr. Cotton, an immigration hard-liner, suggested that these Democrats will pay a price if their brinkmanship goes too far and they are seen as shutting down the government if they cannot offer amnesty for illegal immigrants.

That’s a lot to consider, and having a duffer in charge doesn’t help:

Two of the Republicans involved in the discussions complained on Monday that the days-long controversy over Mr. Trump’s comment had imperiled hopes for an agreement.

Mr. Graham said he spoke with the president on the telephone on Saturday and urged him to show the sort of leadership and restraint that many Republicans were pleasantly surprised to see during an earlier, televised immigration discussion in the White House last Tuesday.

“I told him that the President Trump that showed up Tuesday is the one that can lead the country on multiple levels,” Mr. Graham said. “I think the president realizes that it takes a bipartisan solution. But you’re not going to get a deal by tweeting. You’re going to get one by talking.”

Some sort of leadership would be nice, but that’s unlikely:

“It looks like a big Washington mess to people,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s former top strategist. “Dealing with Trump is obviously a very, very difficult issue not just for Democrats but for Republicans because he is so mercurial and unreliable.”

And he golfs:

President Donald Trump returned to his Florida golf course on Monday, appearing to disregard his own advice that people spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day performing acts of service for others.

Trump arrived at his golf course shortly after 9 a.m., and the White House did not respond to a request for comment about his activity. His public schedule is empty and he is scheduled to return to the White House Monday night.

When signing a proclamation to honor King on Friday, Trump called on all Americans to honor the late civil rights leader’s birthday “with acts of civic work and community service.”

And then, probably to delight of his base, who loathe political correctness, he pretty much said “screw that” and hit the links, in sneering defiance, unless he really is incompetent and ineffectual and clumsy:

Past presidents have engaged in service activities to honor the holiday. Barack Obama, for example, was joined by his wife and aides at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington during the 2015 holiday. George W. Bush visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to mark the day in 2008.

Trump has spent recent days denying that he privately complained that the U.S. admitted too many people from “shithole” countries like Haiti, El Salvador and African countries and not enough from places like Norway.

“No, no, I’m not a racist,” Trump told reporters Sunday. “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

David Axelrod said that Trump is mercurial and unreliable. Add “blissfully unaware” to that, but now he has Mitt Romney on his case:

Mitt Romney took a swipe at President Donald Trump on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, condemning his “shithole countries” remark.

The comment signals that the potential Utah Senate candidate continues to have no problem speaking out against the Trump administration.

“The poverty of an aspiring immigrant’s nation of origin is as irrelevant as their race. The sentiment attributed to POTUS is inconsistent with America’s history and antithetical to American values. May our memory of Dr. King buoy our hope for unity, greatness, and ‘charity for all,'” the 2012 GOP presidential nominee tweeted.

That might have ticked off Trump, or not:

The former Massachusetts governor has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s policies and rhetoric, calling him a “phony” and “a fraud” during the 2016 campaign.

Despite their at-times fraught relationship, Trump considered Romney for the secretary of state post, and the two spoke by phone recently, according to a White House official.

Sure, but during the 2016 campaign Trump kept saying that Romney was a total loser who “choked” the last time around, because anyone could have defeated Obama. David Axelrod said that Trump is mercurial and unreliable. Romney knows this. He also knows that Trump is an incompetent and ineffectual and clumsy duffer.

Michael Gerson puts this a different way:

Sometimes it is necessary to begin with the obvious. The claim that America needs more Norwegian immigrants and fewer Africans from “shithole countries” is racist. It is not the same as arguing for a higher-skilled immigrant pool. That argument might go something like: “We need a higher-skilled immigrant pool.”

This is not that hard, but what just happened? The Washington Post team of Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa and Ashley Parker talked to more than a dozen of their sources in the White House and tell the tale of what happened:

When President Trump spoke by phone with Sen. Richard J. Durbin around 10:15 a.m. last Thursday, he expressed pleasure with Durbin’s outline of a bipartisan immigration pact and praised the high-ranking Illinois Democrat’s efforts, according to White House officials and congressional aides.

The president then asked if Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), his onetime foe turned ally, was on board, which Durbin affirmed. Trump invited the lawmakers to visit with him at noon, the people familiar with the call said.

But when they arrived at the Oval Office, the two senators were surprised to find that Trump was far from ready to finalize the agreement. He was “fired up” and surrounded by hardline conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who seemed confident that the president was now aligned with them, according to one person with knowledge of the meeting.

Trump told the group he wasn’t interested in the terms of the bipartisan deal that Durbin and Graham had been putting together.

Trump is mercurial and unreliable, and easily manipulated. This was a done deal, and then Miller and Cotton and the hardliners changed his mind in an instant, and Trump had them attend the meeting, sandbagging Durbin and Graham, and this didn’t go well:

The meeting was short, tense and often dominated by loud cross-talk and swearing, according to Republicans and Democrats familiar with the meeting.

Trump’s ping-ponging from dealmaking to feuding, from elation to fury, has come to define the contentious immigration talks between the White House and Congress, perplexing members of both parties as they navigate the president’s vulgarities, his combativeness and his willingness to suddenly change his position.

David Axelrod was right:

The fight has left congressional leaders unsure of whether they will eventually come to an agreement. Some remain optimistic that Trump can be walked back to the political center and will cut a deal that expands border security while protecting those under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump has ordered ended.

“The president is indispensable to getting a deal,” Graham said in an interview. “Time will tell.”

Graham may be wrong about that:

Trump complained that there wasn’t enough money included in the deal for his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also objected that Democratic proposals to adjust the visa lottery and federal policy for immigrants with temporary protected status were going to drive more people from countries he deemed undesirable into the United States instead of attracting immigrants from places like Norway and Asia, people familiar with the meeting said.

Attendees who were alarmed by the racial undertones of Trump’s remarks were further disturbed when the topic of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) came up, these people said.

At one point, Durbin told the president that members of that caucus – an influential House group – would be more likely to agree to a deal if certain countries were included in the proposed protections, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Trump was having none of that:

Trump was curt and dismissive, saying he was not making immigration policy to cater to the CBC and did not particularly care about that bloc’s demands, according to people briefed on the meeting. “You’ve got to be joking,” one adviser said, describing Trump’s reaction.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was in the room and was largely stone-faced, not giving any visible reaction when Trump said “shithole countries” or when he said Haitians should not be part of any deal, White House advisers said.

This was all over:

As Trump batted back the Democrats, he was urged on by Republican lawmakers. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told Graham and Durbin their proposal would not fly, and he told the group they should instead embrace his more conservative bill. Durbin was not interested, White House officials said.

After Graham left, he told associates that he was disturbed by what he heard in the Oval Office, according to people who spoke with him, and that it was evident the deal’s antagonists had gotten to Trump. Graham and Durbin also told allies that they were stunned that the other lawmakers were present – and that Trump’s tone seemed so different than it had been days or even hours before, according to people close to them.

He needs to get used to that sort of thing, but now he’s frightened:

Graham declined to comment on the president’s reported obscenity. He has told others in his circle that commenting would only hurt the chance of a deal and that he wants to keep a relationship with the president.

That’s a foolish hope:

There had initially been hope for the Thursday meeting. Trump had told lawmakers during a partially televised session two days earlier that he was flexible. “I’ll sign it,” he said Tuesday of whatever bill was brought to him. He even said he would be willing to lock the door of the Cabinet room if they wanted to negotiate at the White House, according to people who heard his comments.

Trump went on to say at the earlier meeting that he wanted a deal and that even those in the conservative House Freedom Caucus should work with Durbin. In the hours and days afterward, a bipartisan group of senators – Graham, Durbin, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado – began meeting and broadly agreed to a proposal.

But some White House officials, including conservative adviser Stephen Miller, feared that Graham and Durbin would try to trick Trump into signing a bill that was damaging to him and would hurt him with his political base.

That’s the only thing that matters here:

Trump was not particularly upset by the coverage of the meeting and his vulgarity after it was first reported by The Washington Post, calling friends and asking how they expected it to play with his political supporters, aides said.

“Everyone was saying it would help with the base,” which would agree with his characterization, one person who spoke with the president said.

Dawsey and Costa and Parker have much more, but these excerpts tell the tale well enough. This man is a peddler of cheap flashy objects, and an incompetent, ineffectual, and a clumsy person; He may not be a mediocre golfer. He’s not a cattle rustler. But he is a duffer.

That’s what Kevin Drum sees:

I’ve long supported the idea of making a deal that would give President Trump a piece of his wall in return for legislative authorization of DACA. But it turns out that Democrats were prepared to offer him even more: not just some money to start the wall, but also an end to chain migration and the visa lottery…

Apparently, when Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin showed up for last week’s meeting with Trump, they were blindsided by the presence of a bunch of Republican immigration hardliners. “That was obviously designed by Stephen Miller to try to kill the deal,” said a senior Democratic aide.

But maybe that’s not all that was going on here:

That’s eminently plausible, but I have a different theory. All of this stuff happened last Thursday, two days after Trump’s televised session on Tuesday morning designed to prove that he’s not an idiot. Unfortunately, in that Tuesday meeting Sen. Dianne Feinstein tricked him into showing that he is, in fact, an idiot who has no idea what his own party’s position on immigration is. It’s not clear to me if Feinstein meant to do this, but it happened. Everyone in the world picked up on it and mocked Trump’s obvious dimwittedness.

This is, needless to say, something that Trump can’t abide. My guess is that by Wednesday he had already decided to sabotage the negotiations and then blame it on Democrats, all as retribution against liberals for making fun of him. Stephen Miller may have played a role too, but I’ll bet Trump was the driving force.

So this is Drum’s theory of what us going on here:

Everyone understands how you handle Trump: you offer him ridiculous, over-the-top praise and insist that he’s the smartest, toughest negotiator you’ve ever been up against. That softens him up for a deal. Plenty of Republicans have figured this out. Plenty of foreign leaders have figured this out. I’m sure plenty of Democrats have figured this out too, but they just don’t have the stomach to play the game. The result is that Trump inevitably becomes offended by the lack of praise and kills any possible deal. I suspect that’s what happened this time.

That’s more than plausible, but Nancy LeTourneau sees this:

It is worth noting that the $2.8 billion for the border (wall – plus other security) is roughly in line with what the White House asked for a single year on the border in its 2017 supplemental funding requests. So in exchange for protecting Dreamers, which Trump has pretended to want, Democrats were willing to give him the money he requested for border security, eliminate “chain migration” for Dreamers’ parents, and eliminate the diversity visa lottery. In years gone by, that would have been the kind of compromise one would expect from bipartisan negotiations. But it wasn’t enough for Trump. He said, “no,” and, in the process, made his “shithole” comments.

She thinks this was planned:

Cotton uses the term “amnesty” when referring to protection for Dreamers (what Democrats insist has to be part of any spending agreement). Anyone who knows how that word is used on the right will recognize that he is signaling to the Republican base that he won’t support any legislative solution to DACA.

Why is all of this important? Because for months now Trump and his hardline Republican friends in Congress have been suggesting that they support protections for the Dreamers. Now they are doing everything they can to ensure that doesn’t happen.

That’s the plan:

There are two goals (not mutually exclusive) that may explain that. They do not, in fact, support protection for the Dreamers, and/or they want a government shutdown and are doing their best to come up with a way to blame it on Democrats…

Graham and Durbin plan to push forward with their bipartisan plan, but Senate Majority Leader McConnell has stated that he won’t consider any bill that doesn’t have Trump’s support, making him complicit in all of this…

If you want to sabotage any agreement on DACA and/or spur a government shutdown, that’s how to do it.

That means that the whole thing was a farce. There was never going to be a deal – but Donald Trump may not have known that. Trump is mercurial and unreliable, a bit unaware of what’s what, and quite easily manipulated. Maybe he thought there might be a deal. Maybe he thought everyone was making fun of him, not praising him, as everyone should – so he called off the hypothetical deal. It doesn’t matter. He’s a duffer. Let him golf. Just make sure he doesn’t do anything else.

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Choosing the Right Word

California gave America Richard Nixon. Then California gave America Ronald Reagan. Then, to make up for that, California gave America S. I. Hayakawa – the president of San Francisco State University who became one of the state’s two senators in Washington from 1977 to 1983 – and he was a hoot. During his 1976 Senate campaign, there was that proposal to transfer possession of the Panama Canal and Canal Zone from the United States to Panama. Hayakawa simply said this – “We should keep the Panama Canal. After all, we stole it fair and square.”

What? That messed up the argument either way, or clarified things. Change the words and the argument changes. The words one uses matter more than anything else. He knew that. He has an academic. His field was psycholinguistics – semantics – the theory of meaning and all that. His first book was Language in Thought and Action – that book helped popularize Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics and semantics in general. Meaning can be manipulated by mysticism and propaganda and all sorts of manipulation of common words.

The book was actually political, as noted in his preface:

The original version of this book, Language in Action, published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler’s success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer’s conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language – his own as well as that of others – both for the sake of his personal well-being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.

He’d help fix that, but no one knew what he was talking about. He tanked in the polls. His donors abandoned him. He didn’t even try to run for a second term – but for a brief shining moment, America had one senator who knew how any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue could screw things up for us all. Change the words and the argument changes.

Hayakawa illustrated this by noting that adjectives, like verbs, could be conjugated – “I am assertive. You are aggressive. He’s a bully.” The words describe the same thing – like the words “childlike” and “childish” – but they don’t mean the same thing. Words matter, and last year it was this:

During his first speech to a joint session of Congress, President Trump said his administration is “taking steps to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”

Months before, on the campaign trail, Trump appeared to revel in his forceful use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” even when his critics grimaced.

Not one to be easily deterred, Trump continued his use of the phrase from the earliest moments of his presidency when he promised to eradicate the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” “from the face of the Earth” during his inauguration speech.

Even after his national security adviser asked him to avoid using the term during his speech to Congress, Trump didn’t hesitate in uttering those three words.

His national security adviser was upset:

McMaster’s reasoning, according to CNN, is that terrorists who profess to act in accordance with Islam aren’t true adherents of the religion but anomalies who pervert its teachings. McMaster argued that using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” damages the country’s ability to partner with key allies, many of whom are Muslim.

This was a matter of specificity:

“The trouble with the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ is that it makes no distinction between the variants that are Sunni and Shiite, which are radically different,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. “I think there are important distinctions, and if you say ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ does that lump in groups like Hamas, for example?”

“The engine that drives policy should always be specific enough to link means to ends,” Hoffman added.

Barack Obama used the phrase “violent extremism” to separate the violence carried out by terrorists from any immediate association with theology. George Bush just after 9/11 visited a mosque and said “Islam is peace” – the terrorists’ theology got everything all wrong. Trump seemed to being saying that Western democracy is at war with Islam – not useful geopolitically and sure to inflame those who might be thinking about blowing up something else in Paris or Peoria. Even the man Trump admires knew better:

The New York Times reported that Vladimir Putin has a long history of trying not to link terrorists to Islam and goes so far as referring to the Islamic State as “the so-called Islamic State.”

“I would prefer Islam not be mentioned in vain alongside terrorism,” Putin said at a news conference in December, according to the Times.

Words matter. Donald Trump should know that by now. He held a televised roundtable on immigration that ended with this – “I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with. I am very much reliant on the people in this room.”

They took him at his word. They came up with a plan to fix DACA and add more border security and whatnot. They took their new plan to him. He exploded. Why we have to accept immigrants from all those “shithole countries” full of black and brown people, instead of immigrants from Norway?

No one expected that. No one expected the profanity, but that was a minor matter. No one expected the overt racism, but one can conjugate that too – “I was racially ambiguous. You were racially insensitive. He’s a stone-cold racist.”

So, is Donald Trump a racist? Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, who was once the New York Times’ public editor, covers how that question was handled:

The real issue wasn’t the language at all, disgusting as it was. What mattered much more was what Trump’s words really meant, and what the responsibilities of journalists were in conveying that meaning in some sensible way.

Sullivan says that some rose to the challenge:

Lisa Mascaro of the Los Angeles Times provided meaningful context in her immediate news story: “While cruder and blunter than his past public statements, the president’s comments were in keeping with his long-standing position that the United States should shift its immigration policy away from poorer, developing countries, and instead focus on carefully selecting educated immigrants, especially from Europe.”

She added that Trump “has frequently characterized Muslims as terrorists and opened his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants ‘rapists.'”

By evening, some cable newscasters had become far more blunt. Don Lemon of CNN flatly declared: “The president of the United States is racist.” His colleague Anderson Cooper went there, too: Trump’s words were not just “racially charged” but simply racist.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times quickly wrote a well-argued opinion piece, “Just Say It: Trump Is a Racist.”

Others disagreed:

First, they did it by noting that countries like Haiti are indeed poor and troubled, implying that the president was therefore right to disparage them.

Fox’s Tomi Lahren, never deeper than a coffee saucer, put it this way: “If they aren’t shithole countries, why don’t their citizens stay there? Let’s be honest. Call it like it is.” (Her tweet prompted Washington Post Africa bureau chief Kevin Sieff to aptly note that nearly 9 million Americans live overseas, and CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski to wonder, “Why do you live/work in California/NYC instead of your native South Dakota?”)

And second, they did it by positing that Trump’s racism will play well with his base, which somehow makes it acceptable. Jesse Watters, a Fox host, paid tribute to what he called America’s “forgotten men and women” who surely would approve.

Sullivan was not impressed:

Excusing racism on political grounds? Justifying the disparagement of people because their countries are troubled? Making cynical arguments to encourage their audience’s worst instincts?

Media figures who do that – and there are far too many of them – dump buckets of kerosene on the flames.

That’s what Hayakawa had been saying all along, but there was this:

President Trump declared on Sunday night that he was “not a racist” and insisted that the derogatory comment attributed to him during an Oval Office meeting on immigration last week did not occur.

“I’m not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you,” Mr. Trump said as he arrived at Trump International Golf Club for dinner with Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader.

So, he’s the least racist person ever, because he says so, and everyone else is wrong:

Asked about the comments he was reported to have made, including a reference to African nations as “shithole countries,” Mr. Trump indicated that he did not say what had been attributed to him.

“Did you see what various senators in the room said about my comments? They weren’t made,” Mr. Trump said, referring to two Republican senators who said on Sunday morning talk shows that the president never made – or that they did not hear – racist comments about Africa and Haiti.

And the problem isn’t him anyway:

Asked about whether he still expects to reach a deal to extend protections for immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, Mr. Trump blamed Democrats for refusing to negotiate in good faith over the program known as DACA.

“Honestly, I don’t think the Democrats want to make a deal,” he said. “I think they talk about DACA but they don’t want to help the DACA people.”

Mr. Trump said there were “a lot of sticking points, but they are all Democratic sticking points.”

“They don’t want security at the border, there are people pouring in,” the president added. “They don’t want security at the border; they don’t want to stop the drugs.”

“And they want to take money away from our military, which we will not do.”

No one has ever met those particular Democrats, but no matter:

Mr. Trump said he hoped there would not be a shutdown of the government over what he said was Democratic unwillingness to compromise on DACA.

A shutdown seemed likely, and he was the one who unilaterally ended the DACA program, which could have continued as is for years, creating this whole mess:

Earlier Sunday, Mr. Trump declared on Twitter that the Obama-era program shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation was “probably dead,” while a Republican senator who attended the Thursday meeting where the president discussed immigration denied that Mr. Trump had used the word “shithole” in describing African nations.

And it was mess:

The rift over Mr. Trump’s comments, and how they have since been recounted, risked further eroding trust between Democrats and Republicans at the beginning of a critical week for Congress. Government funding is set to expire on Friday, and lawmakers will need to pass a stopgap spending measure to avoid a government shutdown on Saturday.

And lawmakers are already facing a difficult fight over the politically volatile subject of immigration, with the fates of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants hanging in the balance. Adding to the uncertain picture for those immigrants, the Trump administration resumed accepting renewals for the program over the weekend, under orders from a federal judge who is hearing a legal challenge to Mr. Trump’s dismantling of the program.

But in Congress, the battle took on an increasingly personal dimension as Mr. Perdue and Mr. Cotton essentially accused Mr. Durbin of lying about the president’s comments, even after the vulgar remarks were widely reported and the White House did not immediately dispute that the president had made them.

This was a war of words:

“I didn’t hear that word either,” Mr. Cotton said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was.”

Mr. Cotton said Mr. Durbin “has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings,” an assertion that Mr. Perdue made in his own interview Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week.”

Ben Marter, a spokesman for Mr. Durbin, responded by suggesting that Mr. Perdue and Mr. Cotton should not be believed.

“Credibility is something that’s built by being consistently honest over time,” Mr. Marter wrote on Twitter. “Senator Durbin has it. Senator Perdue does not. Ask anyone who’s dealt with both.”

Change the words and the argument changes. Hayakawa was right:

Mr. Trump has a notable style when it comes to professing that he does not harbor prejudice. In 2015, Mr. Trump declared in a television interview that he was “probably the least racist person on earth.” Last year, at a White House news conference, he insisted he was “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” as well as “the least racist person.”

But as Eugene Scott notes, some things cannot be changed:

Frequent Trump critics on the other side of the aisle, including Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), called the remarks racist. “He is a hopeless and ignorant bigot,” Waters said in a statement.

But perhaps the most important reaction came from Rep. Mia Love, the only black Republican woman in Congress. Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said the comments by the leader of her party were racist.

“I can’t defend the indefensible. There are countries that do struggle out there, but their people are good people. Their people are part of us. We’re Americans,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

After Tapper asked her directly whether she thought Trump’s comments were racist, Love replied: Yes.

And that was that, and Scott adds this:

Some will surely claim that Love’s Haitian heritage influences her view of Trump, but having a bias does not mean someone is incorrect. Even Republicans who are neither black nor descendants of Haitians have acknowledged just how problematic the president’s words were.

Trump has denied using the term but acknowledged using “tough” language during the meeting. Sen. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), who previously said that the GOP is “appealing to older white men” by and large, dismissed that defense.

“The words used by the President, as related to me directly following the meeting by those in attendance, were not ‘tough,’ they were abhorrent and repulsive,” he tweeted.

That matter is settled, and like McMaster, others note how words matter:

Rep. John Faso (R.-N.Y.) called the comments “deeply offensive” and a potential obstacle to America’s international relationships.

“President Trump’s comments regarding Haiti and Africa are wrong and deeply offensive. This type of language is counterproductive and undermines the U.S. and our relations around the world,” he tweeted.

And Scott adds this:

Trump’s latest comments, as well as previous ones, also are undermining his party’s relationship with a major constituency.

After recent elections in Virginia and Alabama, much attention focused on just how few black women believe that the Republican Party has their best interest in mind. Several black women – along with black men – told the media that they did not vote for the Democratic candidates as much as they voted against Republican candidates supported by Trump.

Countless Trump surrogates – most of them white men and/or evangelical leaders – have come out in defense of the president. But their take on his supposed commitment to diversity are likely to carry much less weight among black voters than the remarks from Love.

When the only black Republican woman in Congress says that her party’s leader holds a worldview rooted in the belief that people of color are inferior to white people, it will be incredibly difficult for the Republican Party to woo black voters to its side.

And it isn’t only black voters. Jeff Flake is quite white, and he’s not alone, but Kevin Drum has a different take on this:

The White House isn’t really trying very hard to deny Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. In fact, they seem to be kind of gleeful about it. Why?

One of the bedrock beliefs of many conservative whites is that political correctness is out of control. This isn’t just about college kids with their safe spaces and trigger warnings, either. It’s everywhere and it’s out of control. For chrissake, whistling at a woman is paying her a compliment! “Mexican day” at the staff cafeteria is meant with affection! Ebonics is just plain bad grammar!

And come on – their thinking goes – all those third-world countries really are shitholes. Everyone knows it, but only Donald Trump has the guts to just say it.

So this isn’t quite racism or sexism, as it’s really a Hayakawa semantics issue:

It’s a fundamental disagreement about what racism and sexism are. Donald Trump has a lot of fans who wouldn’t dream of using the n-word or insisting that women should stay home with the kids. In their personal lives, they’re probably genuinely decent to everyone around them. But they still feel like they’re walking on eggshells all the time for fear they’ll say something the PC cops have recently banned. Or they feel like there are things they can’t say at all because they don’t have the vocabulary for it. Educated folks might carefully argue that “merit-based” immigration is the way to go because “assimilation” is harder for immigrants from “culturally disparate” countries with “low GDPs and high crime rates.” But Joe Sixpack doesn’t know those words and doesn’t know which ones are acceptable anyway. So he’s tongue-tied. He can’t say anything at all – until Donald Trump comes along. He’s basically saying that we all know those fancy words are just the liberal elitist version of “shithole countries,” and he’s giving Joe permission to say so.

Go ahead and use the words you know and ignore the faux gasps from all those liberal scolds who believe the same thing but just won’t say it in plain language. You’re no more racist than they are.

That may be what’s happening here:

Right or wrong, this is liberating for them. Trump isn’t so much appealing to racism as he is telling people you’re NOT a racist. Just imagine what a sigh of relief this brings to a lot of working-class whites who aren’t, themselves, especially racist but feel like they have to constantly watch every word they say or else they’ll be accused of it anyway. This is the appeal of Trump beyond his flat-out deplorable base.

Okay, so no one is really a racist, but Hayakawa recommended a habitually critical attitude towards language. If the majority is more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred, than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect, we are at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue. Now it’s Donald Trump. This is language in dangerous thought and action.

Jeff Flake knows this:

Sen. Jeff Flake is planning to slam President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press on the Senate floor this week in a speech that will compare the president’s use of the term “enemy of the people” to describe the media to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

“When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press,” Flake, R-Ariz., will say, according to excerpts of the speech provided to NBC News.

In short, words do matter:

“Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies,” Flake plans to say in the Senate remarks.

“It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even (later Soviet leader) Nikita Khrushchev forbad its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin to for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader,” Flake will say.

“This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful and repulsive statements.”

This is very simple:

“I don’t think that we should be using the phrase that’s been rejected as too loaded by a Soviet dictator,” Flake said.

Change the words and the argument changes. Hayakawa warned us all, and then he was forced to leave the Senate, perhaps because that argument was too esoteric. Jeff Flake won’t run for reelection, perhaps for the same reason. But it’s still a good argument – and Trump really is a racist.

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Somehow Proving the Negative

Proving a negative is difficult. Demanding that one proves the non-existence of something is absurd. “I know Elvis’ ghost is visiting me in my dreams.” Ah, well, that may not be Elvis’ ghost. “Prove that it’s not!”

How does one prove that? It’s best to walk away from such arguments. Argue about what is so – what is – not about what is not so – what isn’t – but it’s not that easy. It was November 17, 1973, in the middle of that Watergate mess, when Richard Nixon said this:

I want to say this to the television audience. I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service. I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.

He resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974 – because he had obstructed justice. And no one had called him a crook anyway. And of course he couldn’t prove a negative, that something was just not so. There was positive proof of what he had done. There was what was, and now it’s Donald Trump’s turn.

This was the week where Trump seemed to making three assertions:

“People have got to know whether or not their President is a moron, and I am not moron. Forget what Rex Tillerson said. Forget what’s in that Michael Wolff book. I’m not a moron.”

“People have got to know whether or not their President is a racist, and I am not a racist. Forget that I asked why we have to accept immigrants from all those “shithole countries” full of black and brown people instead of immigrants from Norway. I’m not a racist.”

“People have got to know whether or not their President is a dirty old man into group sex with porn stars, and I am not a dirty old man. Forget what the Wall Street Journal published on Friday afternoon. I’m not a dirty old man.”

That last assertion had to do with late-breaking news:

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Michael Cohen, the longtime lawyer for President Donald J. Trump, arranged a $130,000 hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels one month prior to the 2016 presidential election.

According to the Journal, the payment was made “as part of an agreement that precluded her from publicly discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump.” Daniels (given name: Stephanie Clifford) had reportedly been in talks with both ABC’s Good Morning America and the parent company of the National Enquirer about going public with the allegations.

The Daily Beast had also been in protracted talks with Daniels about arranging an interview after three sources – including fellow porn star Alana Evans – told The Daily Beast that Daniels and Trump were involved. She ultimately backed out on Nov. 3, just five days before the 2016 election.

So now it was time to try to prove the negative:

Cohen on Friday did not address the alleged payout to Daniels but provided the following statement to The Daily Beast: “These rumors have circulated time and again since 2011. President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels.” The attorney also provided a letter dated Jan. 10, 2018 – allegedly signed by Daniels – that denied any “sexual and/or romantic affair” with Trump or the receipt of any “hush money” from Trump.

None of that sounds particularly convincing, because the Wall Street Journal dug up the bank records of the transaction in question, and there is other context:

Daniels’ story would have come on the heels of the porn star Jessica Drake coming forward in late October 2016 to accuse Trump of kissing her without consent and offering her $10,000 in exchange for sex in 2006. Then, on Nov. 4, 2016, the Journal unearthed documents revealing that the Trump-friendly National Enquirer had paid out $150,000 to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal for a tell-all about her alleged 10-month affair with The Donald from 2006 to 2007. They never ran the piece.

If Drake and McDougal are to be believed, their encounters with Trump took place in the months after Melania gave birth to the Trumps’ youngest son, Barron, in March 2006.

According to three sources with knowledge of the matter, Trump also engaged in a curious relationship during this period with another porn star: Stormy Daniels.

It just keeps getting better and better, or worse and worse:

Rumors of Daniels’ strange relationship with Trump first emerged on the gossip website in October 2011. The site, run by Nik Richie (real name: Hooman Karamian), ran a post titled: “World Exclusive: Donald Trump Cheats on His Wife Melania Trump While She Was Pregnant.” In it, an anonymous tipster wrote to the site claiming that: “Donald Trump is the scum of the earth! Not only did he break up my friend’s marriage, but he also cheated on Melania Trump as she was pregnant with his child. My friend had sex with Donald after one of his golfing events and he lured her to multiple hotels [sic] rooms after that. My friend wants to speak with you directly because she is in fear that Donald Trump will ruin her life more than he already has.”

In a follow-up post, Richie wrote, “I know you cheated on your wife with Stephanie Gregory Clifford aka Stormy Daniels and now the world knows.”

Trump and his legal team now have a lot of negatives to prove – that none of this ever happened – that he is NOT a dirty old man – and it is hard to prove something is not so. As Nixon discovered, there’s nowhere to start. One has to talk about what isn’t, not what is. One has to talk about nothing, quite literally. That never goes well.

At this point this story is only a few hours old. Trump may survive this. His evangelical base can use “the flesh is weak” argument. Trump sinned, but God forgives repentant sinners and Trump is a changed man now – he now hates abortion and birth control and gay marriage too. God uses sinners for the greater good. Expect that, or expect Trump to say none of this ever happened, over and over and over. That’s what President Nixon did.

Okay, Trump may not survive this – but Nixon didn’t have Fox News, so Trump may survive this. Fox News specializes in proving negatives. Everyone remembers Barack and Michelle Obama’s frightening terrorist fist-bump – quite the scandal at the time. Fox News can make this Trump “hush money” scandal go away easily enough. They can prove this negative too.

As for the first matter, Kevin Drum addresses that:

Stung by Michael Wolff’s portrayal of him as a childlike idiot in Fire and Fury, President Trump embarked on a series of public events this week designed to show the country that he’s well briefed and in command of his administration.

How did that go? Drum decides a report card is in order:

Monday evening: Tries to sing along to the national anthem but can’t remember all the words. Grade: C

Tuesday morning: Holds televised roundtable on immigration. Absent-mindedly agrees to abandon his immigration plan and adopt the Democrats’ plan instead until Kevin McCarthy interrupts to correct him. Grade: D

Wednesday noon: Tells the press that he got letters from a “lot” of TV anchors saying that Tuesday’s immigration session was “one of the greatest meetings they’ve ever witnessed.” Grade: C-

Wednesday afternoon: Announces that Norway has purchased a batch of F-52 fighters, a plane that doesn’t exist. Trump’s confusion probably stemmed from his belief that Norway had bought 52 F-35 jets. In fact, Norway has authorized the purchase of only 40 F-35s. Grade: D-

Thursday morning: After watching Fox & Friends, tweets that he opposes extension of warrantless surveillance, something that his administration has been pushing for weeks. This sends Congress into a temporary tizzy until an aide tells Trump what he’s done and he puts up a second tweet walking back the first one. Grade: F

Thursday morning: Meets with members of Congress and asks why we accept immigrants from “shithole countries.” Grade: F

Thursday afternoon: In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, insists that DACA and Dreamers are different things and he wants everyone to get that straight. In fact, they are the exact same thing. Grade: F

Thursday afternoon: In the same interview, forgets he has an upcoming meeting five minutes after being told he has an upcoming meeting. Grade: D

 People have got to know whether or not their President is a moron. Now they know.

But is he a racist? That’s the question:

President Donald Trump on Friday ignored questions from the press about his use of the term “shithole countries” to describe African nations and Haiti, as he signed a proclamation in honor of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Trump began the event by carefully reading a set of scripted remarks. “Today we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear: That no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God,” said the president.

Yes, the air was thick with irony, and then it got nasty:

Near the end of the somber affair, Trump got up from the signing table and began to leave. That’s when the questions started.

“Mr. President, will you give an apology for the statement yesterday?” asked one reporter.

“Mr. President, did you refer to African nations, did you use the word ‘shithole’?” asked another.

Then the voice of White House correspondent April Ryan rang out. “Mr. President, are you a racist?”

She would ask that:

Ryan, a veteran journalist who is black, had a notable interaction with Trump in February of last year, when the president asked Ryan during a press conference if she would set up a meeting for him with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

On Friday, however, Trump ignored Ryan and the rest of the press pool as he made his way around the edge of the Oval Office, shaking hands with guests. The event was Trump’s only public appearance of the day, making it the only chance journalists had to ask him questions.

That’s no way to prove that he’s not a racist, to prove that negative, and no one would buy it anyway:

While the televised event appeared calm, off-camera both the White House and Capitol Hill were reeling over the fallout from Trump’s comments, which were confirmed by a half-dozen major news organizations.

For much of the day, members of Congress, diplomats and world leaders had been demanding that Trump apologize for insulting Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion people, and Haiti, a nation with deep social and economic ties to the United States.

Haiti’s former Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, wrote on Twitter that the world was witnessing a new low today – “SHAME ON TRUMP! The world is witnessing a new low today with this #ShitholeNations remark! Totally unacceptable! Uncalled-for moreover it shows a lack a respect and IGNORANCE never seen before in the recent history of the US by any President! Enough is enough!”

Former U.K. foreign secretary David Miliband accused Trump of betraying America’s future – “Trump Administration leading a race to the bottom on refugees and immigrants that is a betrayal of America’s future as well as of its history. These are PEOPLE!”

Later, Trump offered a counter-tweet:

Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said “take them out.” Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!

That was Nixonian. People have got to know whether or not their President is a racist, and he is not a racist. And Nixon is not a crook. And so on and so forth.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker takes it from there:

Mr. Trump’s comment to lawmakers that the United States should accept more immigrants from places like Norway instead of from Haiti or “shithole countries” in Africa did not sound consistent with the notion that all people are equal no matter the place of their birth or the color of their skin.

If it were a one-time comment, an inadvertent insensitivity, it would still have stirred a firestorm. But Mr. Trump has said so many things on so many occasions that have rubbed the raw edges of race in America that they have raised the larger issue. A country tainted at its founding by slavery and struggling with that legacy ever since is now led by a chief executive who, intentionally or not, has fanned, rather than doused, the fires that divide white, black and brown.

That can’t be good:

The president’s approach to race has by many accounts damaged America’s standing in the world and complicated his foreign policy. At home, his words have at times emboldened what was once a political fringe and made it more acceptable to express thoughts that in recent decades had been deemed politically offensive. And he has put the Republican Party in the uncomfortable position of having to defend or denounce him as it heads into an already tough election year.

Trump has made a mess of things, but the question remains:

“Is the president racist? I would say unequivocally yes to that,” said George Yancy, a professor at Emory University and the author of “On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis,” published last fall. “Had he said one thing one time, we might say that was a slip of the tongue or it’s an example of unconscious racial bias or it was a mistake,” he added. “But I don’t think this is a case of unconscious racial bias. I think this is a case of unabashed white supremacist ideas.”

No shit:

White supremacists agreed. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader, said on Friday that conservatives defending Mr. Trump on Fox News should stop saying it was about economics and legal systems, rather than race. “It’s obviously all about race, and to their credit, liberals point out the obvious,” he said.

The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, likewise welcomed Mr. Trump’s comments. “This is encouraging and refreshing, as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration,” the site said.

When the openly racist Daily Stormer is glad that you’re on their side, well, you just might be a racist too, but the evangelicals will forgive you:

“Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment,” Robert Jeffress, the evangelical pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and a presidential adviser, told CBN News. “As individual Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to place the needs of others above our own, but as commander in chief, President Trump has the constitutional responsibility to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.”

Robert Jeffress carved out a theological exception for Trump here, but Baker points to other times in Trump’ life:

Mr. Trump’s history of racially inflammatory episodes traces back to his first days in the public eye. As a young real estate businessman raised in Queens and working with his father, Mr. Trump and the family firm were sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for discriminating against black applicants for rental apartments. He eventually signed a consent decree requiring him to desegregate his properties, although he claimed victory because it included no financial penalty.

As he became more of a public figure, Mr. Trump waded into racially charged controversies that periodically erupted in New York. After five Latino and African-American teenagers were charged with beating and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989, he spent $85,000 to take out full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for the death penalty.

The Central Park Five, as they were called, were later exonerated and were paid a $41 million settlement, but Mr. Trump has never accepted that outcome. As late as 2016, he insisted that they were still guilty and that the settlement was “outrageous.”

Forget the DNA evidence, he still wants them executed, and that’s not all:

While Mr. Obama was in office, Mr. Trump was a leader of the so-called birther movement, promoting the conspiracy theory that Mr. Obama had been born in Kenya, a false claim he did not abandon until 2016. During the campaign, Mr. Trump also generated criticism for describing illegal immigrants from Mexico as “rapists”; proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the nation; and being slow to disavow the support of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman.

Since taking office, he has asserted that there were good people on both sides of a white supremacist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va., and repeatedly lashed out at black football players he deemed insufficiently patriotic for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

This is fairly simple. Argue about what is so – what is – not about what is not so – what isn’t – and that includes this:

When he was in business, he supported the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Indeed, Mr. Trump donated free office space for Mr. Jackson’s civil rights group.

But Mr. Jackson was among those who spoke out on Friday against Mr. Trump. “He speaks like a racist,” Mr. Jackson said. “He conjures up those fears. But to categorize him by a name does not quite address the issue.” Mr. Jackson concluded, “A misinformed man with power is a weapon of mass destruction.”

Jackson seems to think that the word “racist” is too mild a term here, so something is wrong here:

“When reporters shout out to Mr. Trump ‘are you a racist’ at an event to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, something is amiss,” said Ron Christie, who wrote a book about his time as an African-American adviser in President George W. Bush’s White House. “That the president needs to confront questions of racism or bias tells you that this isn’t fake news but a painful reality he must immediately confront.”

But how can he confront questions of racism and bias? How can he prove he’s not a racist? How can he prove a negative?

There’s no point in even trying. The only answer is to change what is, ignoring what isn’t. It’s not what you say. Anyone can say anything. It’s what you do. Fess up, apologize, and do something different, something better, if possible. But there’s the problem. What is possible with this man? That’s what frightens everyone in the world.

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Not Quite Presidential

Donald Trump has said a lot of things. In late August 2016, after winning a few more primaries and pulling away from the rest of those hopelessly conventional Republican losers, to those who were worried that he might be a bit too unconventional, he said this – “At the right time, I will be so presidential, you will be so bored. You will say, ‘Can he have a little bit more energy?’ But I know when to be presidential.”

That was supposed to be reassuring, to the fools and losers out there. The statement was clearly ironic. Being wildly unpresidential was about to win him the Republican nomination, and he must have known that being wildly unpresidential would win him the presidency. He may have known when to be presidential, but he never intended to be presidential. Obama had been presidential – cool and calm and thoughtful and careful, and gracious – and Trump sensed that America had had just about enough of that. He’d be a wild man. He’d say or tweet out anything that came to mind – true or false, or dangerous or simply puzzling, or covfefe incomprehensible. Let others clean up the mess. He’d be pure energy, unfiltered. He sensed that was what America really wanted.

He may have been right. He did win the presidency – but it’s also possible that he had no idea what it meant to be presidential. Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs explain that:

For those like Bill Clinton, who campaigned almost from birth, there was a joy about the job even in the most brutal times, and in his final days it was hard for him to imagine giving it up. For others, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who were more reluctant recruits, the powerful sense of duty made the Oval Office an extension of their other works, just a logical transition. For someone like George W. Bush or Barack Obama, whose paths to the Oval Office were relatively short – a detour in a life headed elsewhere – they did the job, all in, and then left it behind.

With Donald Trump, the nation is seeing something new. Although he flirted with running as an independent, decades ago, and as a Republican in 2012, he was never driven by a vision, an agenda or a set of goals. He gave every indication of wanting to win the presidency but not be the President.

That’s what is different here:

Trump didn’t expect to win and, if he thought about it, probably didn’t want to. The campaign itself gave him the power and the glory and the profits.

The office takes those away. In the terms he cares about – nuclear button notwithstanding – he is in many ways less powerful as President than he was a year ago. Candidates can say whatever they want about what they will do; Presidents are expected to go out and do it. There’s more ridicule and much less freedom. Harry Truman’s “great white jail” is spartan compared with a life pinballing between Mar-a-Lago and Fifth Avenue. The rewards of the office, such as they are, aren’t rewarding to Trump, other than the pomp, the crowds, the chance to show off the Lincoln Bedroom or to see in our response an awe he does not share but likes provoking.

The rest doesn’t interest him:

The fuel that powers the presidency – the passion for ideas, the attachment to allies, the give-and-take of practical politics – gives him no energy. So this is an exhausting, even debilitating, life for a 71-year-old, much less one with little curiosity or sense of mission beyond self-interest. The most thin-skinned public figure imaginable has been exposed to the elements. And he doesn’t like them.

All of this speaks to fitness, which is different than mental capacity or competence or proficiency with policy. It goes to wanting to learn, to grow into the role, to be tested by the office held by others in more difficult times, to make the best of the challenge history hands you.

And that leads to this:

Axios reports that his official day now starts at 11 a.m., with the bulk of the morning carved out for “executive time” – watching TV, tweeting and talking to friends. He’s spent one day out of three in his presidency so far at one of his ritzy properties; having ridiculed Obama for his time on the links, Trump played golf, by one count, 75 times in 2017. That means he golfed, on average, more than six times a month, which would count as a lot even if he were a nice Florida retiree – which he isn’t.

No, he’s not some nice Florida retiree. He is the president. Like it or not, now and then, he has to do something that looks presidential, but it would be nice if he understood the basic concept. Pure energy, unfiltered, can be nothing but trouble, and it was one of those days. Jonathan Chait explains how the day started:

During his morning Executive Time, President Trump took a well-deserved break from his long hours of document study to watch Fox News. The segment featured one of the talking heads urging Trump to oppose the House bill reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The president immediately tweeted out his alarmed confusion that the House was apparently on the verge of approving the very law the sinister Deep State had used to “tapp” his phones – “This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?”

That was pure energy, unfiltered, but Chait explains how dangerous that was:

Ideally, Trump would be posing questions like this to his own advisers, rather than to the entire world. The president’s alarm was unfortunate, since the Trump administration strongly supports reauthorization of this law. It has sent its highest-ranking security officials to lobby Congress for reauthorization, and reiterated its endorsement of the law as recently as last night.

The source of Trump’s confusion may be that he has taken seriously the Republican talking points about the Deep State, failing to realize that it’s disingenuous propaganda designed to cover up misdeeds by his campaign. Republicans don’t actually object to the counterintelligence functions of the government as a whole. They merely want to discredit their specific application to the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. They don’t want the president blowing up the bill right before the vote they labored carefully to assemble.

That’s why his staff sat him down and explained things to him. House Speaker Paul Ryan called him to explain the same thing – Nancy Pelosi, the shadow speaker from the other party, had publicly called on Ryan to pull the bill, because the president, Ryan’s president, opposed it. She was gleefully twisting the knife, and a few hours later Trump tweeted again – “I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”

And then it was all over – the House passed the bill – and Donald Trump learned that being presidential isn’t that easy, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Trump’s initial tweet sent Congress into a temporary tizzy, but I think everyone is drawing the wrong conclusions from this. Sure, it’s yet more evidence that Trump is a moron, but more importantly it shows that Fox & Friends is not taking its constitutional role seriously.

These guys know that Trump is watching, and they know that Trump is easily confused. We all understand that he’s declined over the past couple of years, and America’s well-being depends on Fox & Friends switching to a simpler format and being more careful to explain to Trump what he does and doesn’t support. We all have patriotic duties in these difficult times, and Fox & Friends needs to make sure it doesn’t confuse the commander-in-chief early in the morning before his staff is ready to take over that job.

Drum was twisting the knife too, but someone’s got to be presidential here. Someone has to understand the issues, and understand the details of the pending legislation intended to address those issues, and then make a sensible judgment about the efficacy of that legislation. The three chatty hosts of that Fox News morning show really do need to be more presidential. Donald Trump won’t be. He doesn’t want to be presidential. That’s for losers. And he won the big one.

That should have been that. That was enough of Donald Trump being so presidential that America would be so bored and beg for a little bit more energy. No one was bored, but then the day ended with what the New York Times team of Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Thomas Kaplan report here:

President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.

This wasn’t exactly presidential:

Mr. Trump’s remarks, the latest example of his penchant for racially tinged remarks denigrating immigrants, left members of Congress from both parties attending the meeting in the Cabinet Room alarmed and mystified. He made them during a discussion of an emerging bipartisan deal to give legal status to immigrants illegally brought to the United States as children, those with knowledge of the conversation said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting.

When Mr. Trump heard that Haitians were among those who would benefit from the proposed deal, he asked whether they could be left out of the plan, asking, “Why do we want people from Haiti here?”

But no one should have been surprised:

The comments were reminiscent of ones the president made last year in an Oval Office meeting with cabinet officials and administration aides, during which he complained about admitting Haitians to the country, saying that they all had AIDS, as well as Nigerians, who he said would never go back to their “huts,” according to officials who heard the statements in person or were briefed on the remarks by people who had. The White House vehemently denied last month that Mr. Trump made those remarks.

And this wasn’t surprising:

In a written statement, Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary, did not deny the account of the meeting on Thursday or directly address Mr. Trump’s comments.

“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” Mr. Shah said.

In short, this was an America First thing. Certain Washington politicians seem to love other countries and hate America. Trump’s base will love that assertion, but that fixes nothing:

The president’s vulgar language on a delicate issue left the fate of the broader immigration debate in limbo and had the potential to torpedo the chances of achieving the deal being sought to protect about 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. And they drew a backlash from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, many of whom called Mr. Trump’s utterances unacceptable at best and plainly racist at worst.

There was a lot of that:

Representative Mia Love, a Republican of Utah who is of Haitian descent, demanded an apology from the president, saying his comments were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values.”

“This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation,” Ms. Love went on in an emotional statement that noted her heritage and that said her parents “never took a thing” from the government while achieving the American dream. “The president must apologize to both the American people and the nations he so wantonly maligned.”

And there was this:

“As an American, I am ashamed of the president,” said Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez, Democrat of Illinois. “His comments are disappointing, unbelievable, but not surprising.” He added, we can now “say with 100 percent confidence that the president is a racist who does not share the values enshrined in our Constitution or Declaration of Independence.”

Yes, Gutiérrez used that word – racist – but that’s not a stretch:

As a candidate, Mr. Trump, who rose to political prominence questioning the validity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, branded Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and was slow to disavow the support of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

As the president, Mr. Trump has ordered a broad immigration crackdown while privately railing against immigrants from predominantly black countries and has repeatedly stoked racial divisions, denouncing “both sides” for violence after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and singling out black athletes for failing to stand for the national anthem before their games.

He did call those black NFL players “sons of bitches” after all, and this meeting was tense:

Mr. Trump grew angry as the group detailed another aspect of the deal – a move to end the diversity visa lottery program and use some of the 50,000 visas that are annually distributed as part of the program to protect vulnerable populations who have been living in the United States under what is known as Temporary Protected Status. That was when Mr. Durbin mentioned Haiti, prompting the president’s criticism.

When the discussion turned to African nations, those with knowledge of the conversation added, Mr. Trump asked why he would want “all these people from shithole countries,” adding that the United States should admit more people from places like Norway.

About 83 percent of Norway’s population is ethnic Norwegian, according to a 2017 CIA fact book, making the country overwhelmingly white.

Gutiérrez may have been right:

Mr. Trump has long argued that the United States should base legal immigration on merit and skills rather than family ties, seeking new entrants who are highly educated, capable of assimilating and unlikely to use government programs for the poor. Some people familiar with his comments argued privately on Thursday night that the president had only tried to press that point, using salty language.

But it was the language he used that shocked and appalled many lawmakers and created a public outcry – the vulgar phrase Mr. Trump uttered quickly began trending on Twitter – overshadowing the substance of the DACA talks, and with it, the future of the immigrants at risk of deportation should those discussions fail.

Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the president’s closed-door comments “yet another confirmation of his racially insensitive and ignorant views” and said they reinforced “the concerns that we hear every day, that the president’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ is really code for ‘Make America White Again.'”

And there was this:

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, described the comments as “the most odious and insidious racism masquerading poorly as immigration policy,” and argued that they would make it more difficult for the two parties to reach consensus on an immigration deal.

“It inflames and encourages the worst instinct and the basest dark side of immigration issues,” Mr. Blumenthal said. He added that he had spoken with several Senate colleagues who expressed “a combination of disbelief and a sense of repugnance” at what the president had said.

And meanwhile, over in Norway:

It was already past midnight on Friday when the news arrived in Norway: A day after meeting with Norway’s prime minister in Washington, President Trump told members of Congress that the United States needed more immigrants from places like Norway and fewer immigrants from countries like Haiti.

Many in this prosperous Scandinavian country were already asleep, but several prominent Norwegians who were still online took to Twitter to vent their outrage and disgust, not only at Mr. Trump’s vulgar language but at what many saw as a racially tinged insult.

“The real White House: Trump calls Haiti and African countries ‘shithole’ countries to the face of members of Congress, and uses Norway to prove his racism,” wrote Andreas Wiese, a newspaper commentator who manages the House of Literature, a popular cultural center in Oslo, Norway’s capital.

Yes, they felt used:

This was not the first time Mr. Trump had rankled Scandinavians with off-the-cuff remarks. In February, he puzzled and alarmed Swedes when, in a speech discussing refugee policies in Europe, he suggested that a terrorist attack had occurred “last night in Sweden.” No such thing had taken place.

“Does Trump know that Norway is neighbors with what-happened-last night-in-Sweden?” a Swedish social worker, Ulf Fogelstrom, quipped on Twitter.

And in Haiti:

Raoul Peck, a Haitian filmmaker and former minister of culture, cast blame on Americans who were “enabling” their president.

He accused Republican lawmakers and Trump voters of “protecting even his most outrageous behaviors,” saying that if they do not “stand up to this sickening and suicidal pathology, they will go down in history as not only accomplices, but as James Baldwin would say, as criminals.”

Thirty-seven percent of all Americans, with Donald Trump cheering them on, will resent that, and there was this:

In El Salvador, where the government is still digesting Mr. Trump’s announcement on Monday that nearly 200,000 Salvadorans granted Temporary Protected Status in the United States since 2001 will have to leave by 2019, Carlos Calleja, a businessman and civic activist who is running to be the presidential candidate for the right-leaning Nationalist Republican Alliance, called for unity.

“Our relationship with the United States is a special, historic one, and it will continue to go on,” he said Thursday night. “We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by things like this. There are more important issues to address, specifically the millions of Salvadorans living in the United States that we care deeply about.”

He was hoping for the best, however unlikely, but there was this:

Mae M. Ngai, a historian at Columbia University who has written extensively on Asian immigration to the United States, expressed dismay at Mr. Trump’s remarks.

“His vulgar racism is exceeded perhaps only by his ignorance,” she said. “Countries like El Salvador and Haiti are in terrible condition in large part because of long histories of American support for right-wing dictatorships and crony capitalism. And why would anyone in Norway give up their social benefits – universal health care on a single payer system, no college tuition, and the like – to come to the U.S., which has none of it?”

That’s a good question – a matter of relative shitholes – but then things got worse:

Donald Trump has cancelled a visit to Britain next month to open the new US embassy in London amid fears of mass protests.

The American president claimed on Twitter that his reason for calling off the trip was his displeasure at Barack Obama having sold the current embassy for “peanuts” and built a replacement for $1.2bn. “Bad deal,” he wrote.

But the embassy’s plan to move from Mayfair to Nine Elms in London was first reported in October 2008 – when George W Bush was still president and Obama had not yet been elected.

Oops. But this had to happen:

Relations with the controversial president hit a low late last year when [Prime Minister Theresa] May criticized his decision to retweet material posted by the far right extremist group, Britain First.

Trump responded by tweeting directly to the prime minister that she should focus on tackling domestic terrorism.

The government was so concerned about his decision to share the extremist videos that Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, took the rare step of raising the issue directly with the White House.

Trump’s ambassador to London, Woody Johnson, subsequently insisted: “The president and the prime minister have a very, very good relationship. I know the president admires and respects the prime minister greatly.”

Woody Johnson also owns the New York Jets. He probably thinks they’re a fine football team. Things are not going well.

Donald Trump said that he knows when to be presidential. And when would that be, exactly? Everyone’s waiting.

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Slip-Sliding Away Again

There was something about 1977 – in January, Jimmy Carter was sworn in as America’s most unlikely president. In June, the Supremes performed their final concert together at Drury Lane in London and Elvis Presley held his last concert at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. And Paul Simon had a big hit with Slip-Sliding Away – “God only knows. God makes his plan. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man. We work our jobs – collect our pay – believe we’re gliding down the highway – when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”

And then there was the refrain – “You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.”

That was a song for the times. Everything seemed to be slipping away, but forty years later an even more unlikely president was sworn in – Donald Trump – and much more seems to be slipping away. Richard Nixon hated the press. And he was vindictive. He had his enemies list. And he had his crew that did nasty stuff to mess with guys like Daniel Ellsberg – secretly. And when the New York Times and Washington Post started to publish the Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg grabbed from the Rand Corporation out there in Santa Monica, Nixon sued to have them stop that right away. He lost – but Nixon never said that the free press was the enemy of the people.

He didn’t dare, but Donald Trump has said that repeatedly. Trump seems to think that the free press is too free, because the press feels free to print (or broadcast or post) “fake news” – and that has to stop – and he will declare what is “fake” and what is not. And “the people” will agree with him. Some do.

That’s new. Freedom of the press seems to be slip-sliding away, and now, as the New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum reports, he’s getting serious:

President Trump on Wednesday repeated a pledge to make it easier for people to sue news organizations and publishers for defamation, denouncing the country’s libel laws as a “sham” a day after his personal lawyer filed a lawsuit against a major media outlet, BuzzFeed News.

The salvo from Mr. Trump, who has long expressed hostility toward traditional press freedoms, followed a days-long effort by him and his team to undercut the unflattering portrayal of the White House in a new book by the writer Michael Wolff.

“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws, so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts,” Mr. Trump said during a public portion of a cabinet meeting in the White House.

The president added, “Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness.”

Who decides what’s fair? That’s the question, and there no way to tighten up a federal law that that doesn’t exist:

First Amendment lawyers were quick to point out that Mr. Trump has little power to modify those laws, barring a Supreme Court appeal or constitutional amendment. Other libel laws are determined at the state level, where Mr. Trump, as president, has no direct influence.

“President Trump’s threat to revise our country’s libel laws is, frankly, not credible,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement on Wednesday.

But there was this:

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, filed a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed News for publishing, last January, a salacious and mostly unsubstantiated intelligence dossier that purported to describe how Russia had aided the Trump campaign. The dossier characterized Mr. Cohen as a central figure in what it described as a globe-spanning conspiracy.

Mr. Cohen also filed a separate suit in federal court against Fusion GPS, the research firm that prepared the dossier. Fusion GPS and BuzzFeed both said they would aggressively defend themselves against the suits.

Fusion GPS and BuzzFeed can offer the same defense. This is what we found. This is how we triple-checked it. All of it seems to be true. There’s a public interest here. The public should know such things. You don’t like it. So what? And add this:

Last week, a lawyer working on Mr. Trump’s behalf, Charles J. Harder of Harder Mirell & Abrams in Beverly Hills, Calif., sent an 11-page cease-and-desist letter to the publisher of Mr. Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

Mr. Harder’s letter demanded that the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, withdraw the book from stores and apologize.

The publisher responded by moving up the book’s release date and increasing its first print run to one million copies, from 150,000.

The defense would be the same. All of this seems to be true. There’s a public interest here. The public should know such things. You don’t like it. So what?

Donald Trump does see it that way:

“We want fairness,” the president said. “Can’t say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account. We are going to take a very, very strong look at that, and I think what the American people want to see is fairness.”

Grynbaum points out the irony here:

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump made sport of the reporters who stood in fenced-off areas during his speeches, often whipping up the crowd against them.

He also said on the campaign trail that he would “open up” the country’s libel laws – although he later backed off that pledge in an interview with editors and writers at The Times, joking that he personally might be in trouble if the laws were loosened.

“Somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more,'” Mr. Trump, who propagated false rumors that Barack Obama was born in Africa and that the father of Senator Ted Cruz had aided the assassination of John F. Kennedy, said at the time.

He knew he could get sued for libel and defamation too. He hadn’t thought this through, or remembered this:

Mr. Trump is no stranger to defamation claims, having filed several of them himself, without success. In 2009, a New Jersey judge dismissed a $5 billion suit brought by Mr. Trump against a biographer, Timothy L. O’Brien; Mr. Trump had claimed that Mr. O’Brien understated his personal wealth.

Trump lost that suit and was reprimanded by the judge. O’Brien published what he could prove was true. Trump was wasting the court’s time, as he was in 2013:

Donald Trump is withdrawing his lawsuit against television host and comedian Bill Maher seeking $5 million that Maher said he would give to charity, in a seemingly facetious offer, if Trump could prove he was not the son of an orangutan.

The lawsuit stems from comments Maher made during an appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in January in which he said an orangutan’s fur was the only thing in nature that matches the shade of Trump’s trademark hair.

Records in Los Angeles Superior Court show the real estate mogul requested the lawsuit be dismissed without prejudice on Friday, eight weeks after he filed it. His spokesman, Michael Cohen, said Trump plans to file an amended lawsuit sometime in the future.

There was no amended lawsuit, ever, although the trial would have been interesting. Cohen would have to explain how interspecies sex with an orangutan could not possibly produce any offspring, and then argue that no comedian has the right to make crude absurdist jokes about a public figure. One does NOT insult public figures. Maher’s legal team would sit back and watch, as the world laughed at Cohen, and at Donald Trump. The world laughed at Cohen, and at Donald Trump, anyway. Maher milked this whole thing for months. Trump seethed, and he learned nothing. Trump probably still asks Cohen when he’s going to file that amended lawsuit.

Grynbaum also reports this:

The president’s comments about the news media on Wednesday also extended to one of his favorite punching bags: network news. He taunted the television reporters in the room, saying they were dependent on his activities for ratings.

“If Trump doesn’t win in three years, they’re all out of business,” the president said. “You’re all out of business.”

That’s an odd sort of threat, obviously intended to keep them in line, saying only nice things about him. Eyes rolled, but Christina Wilkie notes this about Trump’s new threats:

The remarks were startling for a few reasons. One is that they may have been first time that Trump’s desire to change the nation’s libel laws made it into the president’s official written remarks.

Equally striking was Trump’s attempt to couch defamation laws in the rhetoric of his populist political movement. According to the president, the current libel laws “do not represent American values or American fairness.”

American values are an issue here. Americans used to value freedom of the press, and free speech, and absurdist jokes about public figures now and then, or frequently, but that doesn’t really matter much:

There is very little Trump could actually do to change how libel laws work.

“Trump is not changing – and he never will change – the libel laws in this country, despite his rhetoric,” said Richard Roth, a New York based white collar litigator and founder of the Roth Law Firm. “These are laws that originated hundreds of years ago in England.”

Today, Roth said, “libel and slander are state court causes of action, not federal laws. So there actually is no federal statute that Trump could try to get Congress to rewrite.”

Additionally, no single state could change its laws to make it easier for public figures like Trump to win libel suits against the press. That standard derives from a 1964 Supreme Court ruling, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

“He’s trying to usurp the judiciary, and it’s not going to work,” Roth said.

The unanimous Sullivan decision by the Supreme Court was clear enough, and that involved actual malice:

The actual malice standard requires that the plaintiff in a defamation or libel case, if that person is a public figure, prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Because of the extremely high burden of proof on the plaintiff, and the difficulty of proving the defendant’s knowledge and intentions, such claims by public figures rarely prevail.

Donald Trump is out of luck here, and Wilkie also reports this:

“If there is any likely change to libel-related laws as a result of Donald Trump the individual or Donald Trump the government official, it is likely to come in the form of increased protection for libel defendants who face a potential increase in frivolous lawsuits of the type he has filed (and lost) in the past,” Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment attorney at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, told Poynter.

For now, Roth said, Trump’s threat to change libel laws is just “another silly declaration” from the White House.

That may not be true. Donald Trump’s presidency seems to be one long attempt to usurp the judiciary. That’s a bigger issue, and a bigger worry, as Talking Points Memo’s Allegra Kirkland reports here:

Since Donald Trump first stirred crowds on the 2016 campaign trail with calls to “lock up” Hillary Clinton, legal observers have been warning about the dangers of politicizing the U.S. justice system.

Those fears grew more urgent late last week with the news that the Justice Department has reopened its investigation into allegations of pay-for-play at the Clinton Foundation, and is also taking a fresh look at the private email server Clinton used as secretary of state. In addition, two influential Republican senators recommended charges against the author of a dossier alleging ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Something is up, something about nothing, but something that has consequences:

There’s no evidence that the White House had a direct hand in any of those actions. But the news comes after frequent calls by Trump for further scrutiny of all three issues, including demanding jail time both for Clinton and for Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide ensnared in the email probe. Trump already has appeared to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to act in the president’s political interest, frequently attacking the AG for failing to protect Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential Russian collusion.

Taken together, the developments suggest a concerted effort by the Trump administration and its allies to push back against Mueller’s intensifying probe, by marshaling the full power of the federal government against the president’s political opponents. That poses a direct threat to the independence and impartiality of the justice system, former DOJ officials told TPM.

Of course it does:

“The fact that the White House has been screaming about the need to investigate these matters undermines the credible belief that this is the result of independent new evidence that’s come somehow to the DOJ’s notice, and not political pressure,” Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who worked closely with Mueller in DOJ’s criminal division, said in reference to the Clinton Foundation and email inquiries.

Some go further, linking last week’s developments with other steps by the Trump administration that seem to undermine the nation’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Ken McCallion, a former federal prosecutor and vocal critic of Trump’s ties to Russia, who as a defense lawyer has represented foreign political leaders targeted by authoritarian governments, called the situation “frightening.”

“If we are slowly sliding from a fully democratic country to a more totalitarian, pseudo-democratic one,” said McCallion, “one of the signs of that will be politicization of the decisions of the judicial process.”

Cue that Paul Simon song, because important and basic things are slip-sliding away:

The news of the revived Clinton Foundation investigation, which is said to be looking into whether Clinton traded donations to the charity for political favors while serving as secretary of state, has triggered perhaps the most alarm. That’s in part because it was first reported by The Hill’s John Solomon, who has been digging into the foundation for over a decade and whose work has frequently pleased conservatives.

More important, the foundation has already been thoroughly investigated. The federal probe was originally launched in 2015, reportedly in response to allegations leveled in a book by the conservative author Peter Schweitzer, Clinton Cash, a project that was backed by Steve Bannon. The inquiry went quiet in 2016 to avoid influencing the presidential race and resumed “about a year ago,” according to the Washington Post.

Exactly why the investigation was revived isn’t clear. Investigators in the Little Rock field office, where the charity has offices, are reportedly taking the lead.

But there’s nothing there:

No evidence has emerged at any point to indicate that the foundation’s donors received anything of value in return for their donations. Indeed, Clinton Cash’s most sensational claim, that Clinton helped a foundation donor win mining rights in Kazakhstan, has been convincingly debunked.

Peter Zeidenberg, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said that without new, credible evidence of wrongdoing, the move to resuscitate the probe “smacks of pure political partisanship,” calling it “really troubling.”

But wait, there’s more:

The same day that news of the revived foundation probe emerged, the Daily Beast reported that DOJ also is looking into how Clinton and her aides handled classified material that passed through her private email server. That comes as the five-year statute of limitations for any potential federal felonies committed by Clinton, who left office in early 2013, draws near.

But again, there’s nothing there:

Clinton’s handling of classified information, like the foundation’s dealings with donors, has been exhaustively investigated. James Comey, then the FBI director, announced in July 2016 that a thorough probe had turned up no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Then, shortly before that year’s election, Comey said the bureau had obtained new evidence in the form of emails on Abedin’s computer. That highly unorthodox disclosure appears to have prompted a significant decline in Clinton’s support at a crucial moment. But Comey later said that those emails did not change the bureau’s assessment.

Zeidenberg called the renewed focus on Clinton’s emails “preposterous.”

“Maybe this is being done for legitimate reasons but for appearance’s sake, it stinks,” Zeidenberg said.

But it’s still happening:

The FBI’s hierarchical nature means that if an investigation originated from the top down, it would be difficult for agents to resist it, a former Obama Justice Department lawyer told TPM.

“You’re going to get people who will follow orders and be angry about it: ‘Okay I’ll investigate this and it’s stupid and it’s a waste of my time and I’ll do it,'” the person said.

“Because it’s a hierarchical organization there’s nobody to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Attorney General, your judgment is political and I’m shutting this down.'”

That’s a structural issue, but there’s this too:

It’s not only the Justice Department that’s being accused of improperly going to bat for the president. On Friday, in the first criminal referral related to Congress’s Russia investigation, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both members of the Judiciary Committee, announced that they believed Christopher Steele, a British spy who authored a dossier documenting allegedly improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, had lied to federal authorities about his contacts with reporters. The senators referred the case to the Justice Department for potential prosecution.

Both Grassley and Graham have lately seemed eager to defend the administration in connection with the Russia investigation. Graham has called for a new special counsel to probe alleged anti-Trump bias in the DOJ and FBI.

Democrats on the committee have expressed frustration at not being consulted. McCallion said he couldn’t remember such a referral being made on a partisan basis in his career.

The referrals came after Trump allies spent months attacking the dossier as unreliable and politically motivated, and arguing that its flaws undermine the entire Russia investigation. The president himself has called it “bogus” and lamented that it’s been used “as the basis for going after the Trump campaign.”

Sure, but that’s not true:

In fact, the dossier appears to have played little role in the decision to open the probe, and the FBI appears to believe its findings are credible.

Zeldin said it “doesn’t sit well” that months of witness interviews and the review of tens of thousands of pages of documents by the judiciary committee ended with what he said was essentially a “leak investigation.”

“You’d think if this was a serious concern as opposed to a political distraction, they would’ve made the referral without a public disclosure so as not to interfere with the FBI’s investigative efforts,” Zeldin added.

But they didn’t do that, and now there’s this:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday urged Republicans in Congress to “take control” of the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, prompting some head-scratching from a top GOP investigator on Capitol Hill.

“The single greatest Witch Hunt in American history continues,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “There was no collusion, everybody including the Dems knows there was no collusion, & yet on and on it goes. Russia & the world is laughing at the stupidity they are witnessing. Republicans should finally take control!”

That didn’t go down well:

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he didn’t know what the president meant.

“I don’t know what the president has in mind, and I don’t think I better comment until I have a discussion with the president on that,” Grassley said, when asked by reporters.

Then Grassley added: “And I don’t intend to have a discussion with the president on that point, and I hope he doesn’t call me and tell me the same thing that you said he said.”

So there’s Trump’s ongoing attempt to usurp the judiciary, and now the legislative branch, over this:

Trump’s tweet about GOP “control” of the investigations came the day after the top Democrat on Grassley’s committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) unilaterally released the transcript of a closed-door interview with a key witness in the Russia probe, Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson.

Simpson’s testimony was a problem. Simpson testified that the FBI investigation was already underway when the FBI was given that Steele dossier from Fusion GPS – the FBI had already been told about much of this collusion stuff by a “mole” inside the Trump campaign. Someone was feeling guilty. The dossier was only possible supporting detail – which is not what the Republicans had been saying. Hillary Clinton had not ordered this dossier and started the whole “witch hunt” after all. Feinstein had messed up their story of how this all started. Trump was pissed, but he went too far:

Beyond the jostling among Judiciary Committee members, Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have faced questions about whether Trump has pressured them to wind down their Russia investigations…

Asked about Trump’s tweet on Wednesday, the intelligence panel Democratic vice chairman, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, warned that it “smacks of interference in investigations.”

Yeah, well, so what else is new? Trump wants to change the libel laws. He doesn’t think much of the free press, and many now agree with him. He doesn’t think much of anything like an independent judiciary, and his base is fine with that. And of course Congress should cover his ass – that’s what they’re there for – and some congressional Republicans, but not all, are fine with that. And of course no one should make orangutan jokes about his hair. He’s proud of his hair.

And then there’s Paul Simon. You know the nearer your destination – making America great again – the more you’re slip slidin’ away.

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On Doing No Harm

There’s the Hippocratic Oath – a promise to act ethically. Swearing to some sort of modified form of this oath is a rite of passage for new physicians, although this oath has little to do with medicine itself. This has to do with medical ethics, with doing one’s best and medical confidentiality and all sorts of things, but everyone knows what comes first – “First, do no harm.”

New physicians need to remember that. Given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good. Don’t try something new and unusual, just to see what happens. Enthusiasm kills. Enthusiasm also leads to malpractice suits. Do good things, wonderful things, but first, do no harm.

Politicians should take this oath too. Political power is seductive. Republicans now have the House and Senate and the White House all to themselves, to do whatever they want to do, but they are learning, the hard way, that enthusiasm kills. No one told them that the first order of business was to do no harm, and now they’re paying the price. The Wall Street Journal’s Kristina Peterson and Stephanie Armour report that Republicans have given up on doing anything important in 2018:

Instead, Republican lawmakers are likely to embrace a slimmed-down agenda focused on the basics, including funding the government, raising the government debt limit and striking a deal on immigration, according to GOP lawmakers and aides…

At risk of losing one or both chambers in November, Republicans say they want to avoid controversy over policies that stand little chance of passing the Senate, where most bills need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles. Voters are especially wary of plans to overhaul safety-net programs, which polls show remain highly popular. Republicans say they are confident the surging economy will help their electoral prospects.

They’re going to hunker down and do no harm, because they know that that enthusiasm, for overhauling the safety-net programs, for handing off Medicaid to the states, where it will die, for turning Medicare into a voucher program and phasing it out, for privatizing Social Security so it finally folds, kills. That would kill them, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Republicans almost literally have no policy positions these days that are popular. Repealing Obamacare polled poorly. Their tax bill is widely detested. No one wants to touch Social Security or Medicare even in a symbolic vote.

The only popular proposal on President Trump’s plate is his trillion-dollar infrastructure project, but Republicans in Congress aren’t interested. So that leaves two things: (a) immigration and (b) avoiding disaster.

Drum sees the irony here:

The weird thing is that a comprehensive immigration deal is actually possible. The Senate could pass one pretty easily, and if Trump then bragged that it was the greatest, toughest, most America-Firstest immigration plan ever, his base would support it and the House would probably pass it. You know, sort of a Nixon-goes-to-China thing. And it would give Republicans another big win going into the 2018 midterms.

Would Democrats buy in? Beats me. But it probably doesn’t matter since there’s no one in the Republican Party these days likely to lead the charge. Marco Rubio won’t do it again. Mitch McConnell has little interest. Trump is clueless and can’t lead anything.

So I guess keeping the government open and paying its bills is all we’re going to get this year. Given the most likely alternatives, I can live with that.

Drum can live with that, and no one dies – neither those in need of the social safety net (literally) nor (figuratively) any Republican politician. It may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good – no one dies.

Republicans are learning that, the hard way, but Donald Trump will never learn that. He doesn’t believe that. He is a man of immense and impulsive enthusiasms, delivered in short provocative tweets that often do cause immense harm. America’s allies are often aghast. Does this man want to start a nuclear war? His own staff despairs. They have to explain that he didn’t really mean what he just tweeted – but that only makes him angry. Then his staff says that this or that tweet was actually brilliant, if you look at it a certain way. Others see the actual harm.

He doesn’t. He doesn’t because his base loves that sort of thing, and they got him elected – but everyone else thinks he’s nuts, or at the very least, dangerous. They seem to maintain that the job of the president is kind of like any doctor’s job – first do no harm. That notion seems to puzzle Donald Trump. He’s enthusiastic. So what? His enthusiasm made him president.

Donald Trump wouldn’t make a good doctor. His patients would die, and the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker report on how the White House is handling this:

The White House is struggling to contain the national discussion about President Trump’s mental acuity and fitness for the job, which has overshadowed the administration’s agenda for the past week.

Trump publicly waded into the debate spawned by a new book, “Fire and Fury” – Michael Wolff’s inside account of the presidency – over the weekend by claiming on Twitter that he is “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius.” In doing so, the president underscored his administration’s response strategy – by being forceful and combative – while also undermining it by gleefully entering a debate his aides have tried to avoid.

And still, Trump sees no harm:

Trump privately resents the now-regular chatter on cable television news shows about his mental health and views the issue as “an invented fact” and “a joke,” much like the Russia probe, according to one person who recently discussed it with him.

Okay, go with that:

So far, Trump’s advisers have adopted a posture of umbrage and indignation. Rather than dignifying questions about whether their 71-year-old boss is fit to be president, they attack the inquisitors for having the gall to ask.

In an emailed statement Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders slammed what she called “ridiculous reports from detractors” and described an “outpouring of support from a totally indignant staff.”

But that won’t do:

Some Trump allies voiced frustration that the White House does not appear to have implemented a full-scale crisis communications plan.

“When you raise an issue like the mental acuity of the president, there is no organized effort to push back,” said one ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “How do you disprove a fallacy?”

Kevin Drum has an answer to that:

Actually, fallacies are disproven all the time. That’s why they’re called fallacies in the first place. In this case, it would be easy to disprove that Trump is a moron, and in a spirit of bipartisan magnanimity I’m going to reveal how to do it free of charge…

Have Trump give a live TV interview in which he addresses policy issues in depth and shows that he has actual, demonstrable knowledge of a variety of topics. Points will be deducted for every meandering mention of (a) Hillary Clinton, (b) fake news, (c) his record-breaking election victory, (d) the FBI, (e) the unfairness of the Russia investigation, (f) his IQ, (g) collusion between Democrats and Russia, (h) how he personally turned around the economy, or anything else that’s so off-topic it’s not even in left field.

A bright high school senior could do this, so the bar is set pretty low. You don’t need a full-scale crisis communications plan. This is all it would take.

That’s not a bad idea. In fact, as Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker (again) report, the White House actually tried that:

He acted the part, listening intently and guiding the conversation with the control of a firm but open-minded executive. He spoke the part, offering a mix of jesting bon mots and high-minded appeals for bipartisanship. And he looked the part, down to the embroidered “45” on his starched white shirt cuff.

In short, President Trump on Tuesday tried to show that he could do his job.

The results were mixed:

With his afternoon immigration meeting with lawmakers – into which he invited the press corps to watch for nearly an hour – Trump sought to definitively answer the question that has been nagging at him for the past week: Is the 71-year-old mentally fit to be commander in chief?

And for the 55 minutes that the scene unfolded on television, the president demonstrated stability, although not necessarily capability. In trying to erase one set of queries (is he up for the job and a “very stable genius,” as he claimed on Twitter), he inadvertently opened another: What, exactly, is going to be in that immigration bill?

In the end, no one knew:

The former reality television star made the unilateral decision to allow journalists toting cameras and audio recorders into the West Wing’s Cabinet Room to watch him talk with lawmakers about one of the most in­trac­table and polarizing issues facing the government – what to do with the nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers.” Their work permits are set to expire March 5 because of Trump’s decision to revoke President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

And while Trump offered captivating television drama, he also muddled through the policy by seeming to endorse divergent positions, including simply protecting the dreamers or a plan contingent upon funding for his long-promised wall at the nation’s southern border.

He wanted to sound reasonable but ended up sounding disengaged:

“I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said. “I am very much reliant on the people in this room.”

So pliant was Trump that when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the most liberal members of the chamber, asked if he would support “a clean DACA bill” that protects the dreamers with no other conditions, the president sounded amenable.

“Yeah, I would like to do it,” Trump said.


Trump’s apparent concession so alarmed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that he interjected himself, although he was careful only to gently contradict the president, who in the past has referred to him as “my Kevin.”

“Mr. President, you need to be clear, though,” McCarthy said, leaning over from his perch to Trump’s left. “I think what Senator Feinstein is asking here – when we talk about just DACA, we don’t want to be back here two years later. You have to have security.”

Later, again attempting to nudge the president back on track to a more conservative plan, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) made a similar pitch for precision. “We have to be very clear, though,” Perdue urged.

It seems that Donald Trump’s immense and impulsive enthusiasm is a problem for everyone:

Later, when Trump offered a clarification – “We do a Phase 1, which is DACA and security, and we do Phase 2, which is comprehensive immigration” – a relieved-looking McCarthy all but leaped from his seat, pointing at Trump like a teacher whose promising student, after several false starts, finally has alighted on the correct answer.

Yet the president’s plans were so nebulous that as the confab wrapped up, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) was still pressing for more specifics. “You want $18 billion for a wall, or else there will be no DACA. Is that still your position?” she asked. “And can you tell us how many miles of wall you’re contemplating? Whether it’s $17 million or $13 million or whatever is – can you tell us?”

Trump then said he was flexible. The details didn’t matter. Everyone else in the room could work out the details. He’d sign into law whatever they came up with, which he seemed to think would make him a “winner” or something, but the whole thing was a bit strange:

Trump staged the meeting as a showcase of his desire to cut a deal with Democrats. He cast himself as a bipartisan statesman, saying he’d had a similar gathering the previous week with only Republican lawmakers and was eager to add Democrats to the mix.

Originally, there was no plan for a photo opportunity, let alone a 55-minute one, a White House official said. Trump’s daily schedule listed the meeting as “closed press.” The lawmakers also were not expecting any media coverage.

Trump sat at the table’s center, between two Democratic leaders who have been outspoken advocates for the dreamers – Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) – and set the tone at the outset by calling for “a bill of love.”

That was a bad choice of words, sixties hippie-words:

The president’s bipartisan bonhomie sparked immediate backlash on the political right. On Breitbart News, a conservative website that positions itself as the mouthpiece of Trump’s base, coverage of the meeting featured a photo of Trump reaching out to high-five Jeb Bush – the former Florida governor who has been pilloried by the party’s grass roots, as well as by Trump, for his support of immigration reform – under a headline that blared “amnesty.”

Kevin Drum was right that this sort of event would reveal all:

Lawmakers left the meeting encouraged if confounded.

“This was the most fascinating meeting I’ve been involved with in 20-plus years in politics,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement.

Before leaving the White House, Durbin told reporters he had enjoyed a “unique meeting” in a “positive sense.”

“My head is spinning,” the Democrat said.

But this was no more than another Trump reality show:

During the meeting, Trump repeatedly broke the fourth wall to address the fourth estate, acknowledging his real audience beyond the members of Congress.

“I like opening it up to the media because I think they’re seeing, more than anything else, that we’re all very much on a similar page,” Trump said.

Typically, reporters are let in to such meetings for only a few minutes at the beginning. But the president sometimes has remarked afterward to aides that reporters missed the best parts, according to one top White House official.

As he excused the press corps, Trump said: “I hope we’ve given you enough material. That should cover you for about two weeks.”

Trump was right about that, and Aaron Blake adds this:

For a moment, Democrats thought they had struck an unexpected deal with President Trump. Trump had previously insisted that any deal protecting “dreamers” – undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children – should also include border security and/or a border wall. But he now says that he would support a “clean” bill protecting dreamers, and then take up comprehensive immigration reform later.

“What about a clean DACA bill now, with a commitment that we go into a comprehensive immigration reform procedure?” asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Trump responded: “Yeah, I would like to do that. I think a lot of people would like to see that.”

The problem? Trump didn’t know what “clean DACA bill” meant. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) quickly interjected and made clear that Trump believes a “clean” bill would include border security. Except that’s not at all what a clean bill is; that’s a compromise bill. A clean bill, by definition, only has one component to it.

By the end, Trump sought to clarify things. “I think a clean DACA bill to me is a DACA bill, but we take care of the 800,000 people,” he said. “But I think to me, a clean bill is a bill of DACA – we take care of them, and we also take care of security.”

Blake says that Trump was faking it:

If anything, the whole mess showed pretty vividly just how utterly disengaged Trump is in the finer details of policy discussions – which is exactly the perception that he has recently fought against.

Asked by the New York Times late last month about this perception, Trump bristled. “I know the details of taxes better than anybody – better than the greatest CPA,” he said. “I know the details of health care better than most, better than most.”

The problem is that every public indication gives us the opposite impression. Trump almost continually moves the goal posts on what he wants, shifts the terms of the debate, and misstates what’s actually contained in the legislation that is before Congress.

That’s who he is:

Even by the end of the meeting, Trump seemed to indicate that the border wall isn’t necessarily a must-have for him – becoming just the latest iteration in a dizzying series of back-and-forths on what he wants in a DACA deal…

If you are a Democrat hearing those words, it’s pretty clear that Trump isn’t wedded to his position on, well, anything. The border wall seems more like an opening bid. If Trump has shown us anything, it’s that he just wants to sign bills and make sure the base doesn’t hate him for it. So as long as he can plausibly say he fought the good fight for the border wall – even if he didn’t – it seems he’s ready to just get it over with and claim a legislative win.

Trump, in his way, may have been trying to do no harm, but he did harm:

Presidents needn’t dirty their hands with all of the sausage-making that happens down Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress produces the bills, and the president decides whether to sign them. But Trump has repeatedly assured us that he knows this stuff better than almost anyone and that he’s the world’s preeminent negotiator. What we saw Tuesday was neither of those things.

And then there was this detail:

President Donald Trump said Tuesday said Democrats and Republicans should consider bringing back earmarks to make passing legislation easier.

“Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks,” Trump said, leading many of the lawmakers to laugh.

Of course they laughed:

The Senate voted to force members to disclose requests for earmarks in 2007. The measure passed 98-0.

The House banned the practice six years ago after they became a target of ire among conservatives.

House Republicans, after considering bringing back earmarks earlier this year, put a stop to the conversation at the behest of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who successfully lobbied his Republican colleagues to postpone a vote to bring back the measures.

“We just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election,” Ryan told members at the time, according to a GOP source in the room. “Let’s not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later.”

Now conservatives are up in arms and panicked. Trump is betraying them. Liberals are confused. They have no idea what Trump is offering, if anything. Trump, however, thinks he’s being reasonable, and presidential. Let others work out the details. He’ll sign anything they pass – and Kevin Drum is probably giggling. A bright high school senior could do this. Trump couldn’t.

Someone needs to sit Trump down and talk to him. Mister President, first do no harm. Say nothing. Do nothing. We’ll all live longer.

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