Some days there’s too much news. The only thing to do is drive out to Malibu, because Malibu, on a weekday afternoon in the middle of winter, is a calm and serene place – and Washington wasn’t. Obama had given his farewell address the night before – he was as good as gone – so Washington is now Trump’s town, and chaos follows that man. He thrives on it. He uses it to his advantage, and that seemed to be what was happening. Half of his potential cabinet was in confirmation hearings – not that any of them won’t be confirmed, no matter that few of them know anything about government and have no experience running much of anything. They will introduce chaos, as if that’s a good thing, which some, presumably, believe. But the networks were scrambling. They couldn’t cover all the simultaneous hearings, so some networks chose one or two and ignored the rest. Other networks jumped from hearing to hearing, befuddling their viewers no end. Who is this person again? What will they be running? Oops – they’re gone – there’s another one. What? Who?
The news was unwatchable – learn a few things about one or two of these folks and know you’ve missed a lot about many others, who might be important in how things go for everyone in the next four years, or consider snippets from the whole array and learn little of anything – which may have been the point. And, in the middle of it all, Donald Trump gave his first press conference since July and was angry, and contradictory, and a bit unhinged when he wasn’t simply incoherent – and he was proud of it all. Don’t try to make sense of it all. Trust him. He’ll make America great again, or Russia will. It was hard to tell, but it was hard to make sense of it all, if not impossible. That’s why you have to trust him. He’s left no alternative.
That’s why Malibu called. Drive west on Sunset to its end, turn right and head a mile or two north, park by the pier, and watch the solitary winter surfers wait for the right wave. It clears the mind. It wasn’t Washington. Monica Hesse and Elise Viebeck describe the scene there:
Wednesday was a big, weird moment in the lurching transition of federal power. Did it reach peak weirdness when a group of protesters began to march around the U.S. Capitol in dinosaur costumes? Or was it reached only when President-elect Donald Trump, in Manhattan, denied kinky new allegations about himself by announcing that he was “very much a germaphobe, by the way”?
What? Just ride the Washington wave:
At 9:15 a.m., secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson took his seat in hearing room 106 (moved from room 423). This was followed at 10:15 by the confirmation hearing of Transportation Department nominee Elaine Chao in room G50 (moved from room 253). These accompanied the hearing for Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) (continued from the previous day), but excluded the hearings for nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, and education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, which had been postponed at the last minute when Senate Democrats argued that the schedule was already a deluge.
The day became a confirmation shell game – Senate committee members could question the nominees, but only if they could figure out which room they were in.
“Did you go to Chao?” a young woman in a pantsuit asked her friend, as they both searched for seats at one confirmation hearing in the Dirksen office building.
“Isn’t this Chao?” her companion said. “Aren’t we at Chao now?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s what I meant. I’m sorry.”
They were immediately sorry:
At the front of the room, Chao took her seat, introduced her proud father to the panel, and withstood a corny joke from her husband, who happens to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who promised the committee that his wife had “great judgment.”
They missed the main show:
Meanwhile, one flight up, the admission line for Tillerson’s hearing stretched out the door and around the corner, with Capitol employees acting as ushers for people seeking available seats. As committee members questioned the former ExxonMobil chief executive about his potential conflicts of interest and his ties to Russia, the entrance door opened and a chorus of voices could be heard chanting, “Reject Rex! Reject Rex!”
It was the dinosaur people – not the actual ones in costumes, which were too unwieldy for the madhouse corridors of the Senate, but some of their civilian-dressed cohorts, who came in to protest that the nominee’s beliefs were as outdated as a tyrannosaurus rex.
And there was this:
Meanwhile, one building over and outside of Jeff Sessions’ hearing, Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who campaigned for Hillary Clinton and became the target of a Donald Trump rampage on Twitter, quietly browsed his phone. “I have no illusion that this nominee will not be confirmed,” he said to a reporter. “But we are going to continue to hold him accountable. It was very heartening to hear this nominee say that he does not stand for a Muslim ban, and I hope that was genuine and it wasn’t for the expediency of getting confirmed.”
One can always hope, but that seemed foolish:
Expediency was both the rule of the day and the fear of it, as committee members attempted to vet would-be appointees, some of whose nominations had been controversial. Tillerson was the country’s would-be chief diplomat, with no political experience. Sessions was the country’s would-be chief attorney, whose appointment had been protested by civil rights groups. Less than 18 hours before, news had broken that the president-elect had been briefed on unconfirmed claims that Russia had gathered compromising information about him.
That compromising information included odd unverified goods that some Russians had told other Russians what they had on him, that he liked “golden showers” – women urinating in front of him – which is why he told the nation that he was a total germaphobe – that just wasn’t his thing. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Now we know. It was that kind of day:
At 11:15 or so, Trump himself appeared – in person at Trump Tower; on screens everywhere else – stealing the thunder of even his own nominees, revisiting some of his favorite topics: the “crooked” media, the losers who didn’t support him, the tax returns he hasn’t released and says aren’t important.
“Did you watch the press conference?” one Republican congressman asked another as they got on an elevator back in Washington.
“No,” said the second. “That’s time in your life you never get back.”
That’s a sign of overload from his own party before the man even begins his presidency, and Allegra Kirkland at Talking Points Memo covers how odd this press conference was:
The Donald Trump who took questions from reporters Tuesday in his first press conference as President-elect was the same combative, short-tempered figure the American public saw on the 2016 campaign trail, down to the red power tie.
The President-elect personally dressed-down a CNN reporter in scathing terms. He limited his comments on what a replacement plan for Obamacare would look like to a vague promise to “repeal and replace” the healthcare law “essentially simultaneously.” His responses were cheered on enthusiastically by a small group of staffers.
In short, two months after winning the White House in a historic upset and nine days out from Inauguration Day, Trump appeared no closer to adhering to the norms that have traditionally regulated the office he is poised to assume.
That may be a problem:
Russell Riley, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s nonpartisan Miller Center of presidential scholarship, told TPM that Trump’s remarks demonstrated a “personalization that you just do not see in the history of the presidency.”
“There’s no question that the candidate was elected largely because he was seen as someone who was willing to be confrontational and willing to explode a lot of the norms of American politics,” Riley said. “I think the voters found that appealing because there was a sense that he would take that approach with him into the office.”
“But I think there also has been an expectation that at some point those inclinations to blow up norms would be converted in service of a specific set of programs – that the destruction of what went before would eventually give way to the construction of what he expects to do once he’s in office,” he continued.
That ain’t gonna happen:
Little of the press conference was devoted to laying out a policy vision. There were few comments about working with Congress on healthcare, an overarching foreign policy strategy or a job creation plan.
Instead, Trump spoke in broad terms about his intention to be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created” and to create a healthcare system that is “far less expensive and far better” than Obamacare. Asked about the plan his lawyer outlined in the presser for disentangling himself from the Trump Organization, Trump gave himself credit for turning down “$2 billion to do a deal in Dubai” with Middle Eastern developer Hussein Damack, who he deemed “a friend of mine, great guy.”
He could make a ton of money, nothing is stopping him, so he says, but he’s a good guy. He didn’t take the money. Admire him.
That’s the problem:
“The language that Trump will bring into the office is very different than that of most presidents, who have certainly been cheerleaders for themselves, but still much more measured and operating in a kind of collective discourse rather than a kind of I, I, I discourse where it’s all about him,” Bruce Miroff, a political science professor and expert on the U.S. presidency at the University of Albany, told TPM.
These experts on the presidency also noted that the antagonism Trump continues to display towards the U.S. intelligence community and the media is unprecedented.
While the President-elect began the press conference by saying he has “great respect for the news,” he later tore into reporters from CNN and BuzzFeed. He refused to respond to questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta because the publication on Tuesday published a report that U.S. officials had presented Trump with documents alleging Russian operatives have “compromising personal and financial information” about him. He also labeled BuzzFeed a “pile of garbage” for publishing a 35-page dossier that the news site said had served as the source material for the summary intelligence officials gave Trump.
The Miller Center’s Riley called the President-elect’s barbed exchange with Acosta “genuinely unprecedented.”
Get used to it, because there’s been no change:
Miroff noted that hostility to the press was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, and that those who expected to see a marked shift in his behavior over the course of the transition will likely be disappointed by the Trump who assumes the office of the presidency next week.
“I think Donald Trump has one mode,” he said. “That is the kind of Trump as a larger-than-life figure who is on the one hand doing tremendous, beautiful, great things, and on the other hand is surrounded by vicious enemies who will do everything to tear him down.”
The madness begins, and there’s Gail Collins’ account:
The reason he hasn’t shown up to answer questions from reporters since July is “inaccurate news.”
The Russians don’t have any secret tapes of him behaving badly in a hotel room because every time he goes to hotels abroad, he warns everybody: “Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras.” Of everything Trump said during the press conference, this was perhaps the most convincing.
He is not going to divest himself of his businesses, but his two adult sons will be running them. He was just doing this out of his ethical heart, since there are no conflict-of-interest rules for the president. (“…as president I could run the Trump Organization – great, great company. And I could run the company, the country. I’d do a very good job, but I don’t want to do that.”)
He’ll release his taxes once the audit is finished. (You remember that audit. Its friends call it Godot.)
The inauguration is going to be “a beautiful event” because “we have great talent.” (Military bands were mentioned.)
“If Putin likes Donald Trump I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
Beware of those who speak of themselves in the third person, but beware of it all:
He was all over the place. It was, in a way, a great strategy. We’ve been waiting for a long time to hear how Trump would deal with his businesses, and his refusal to divest drove ethics watchdogs crazy. But on Wednesday, the whole topic got drowned in the hubbub over the leaked report. And Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. And his theory on hotel cameras.
This kind of rapid-fire diversion could be the work of a political genius, but in fact it’s just how our next president’s mind naturally seems to operate. It bounces hither and yon. The only ongoing focus is what it all means to Trump. Did he look good? How was the crowd? Did anyone betray him?
He was definitely playing the victim when it came to the leaked report. He blamed the intelligence services, which he compared, with great originality and careful choice of words, to Nazis.
Of course he did. He’s that kind of guy. He didn’t explain the comparison – why it’s appropriate, historically. He just threw out the word. That would do:
Trump is never going to admit his win was anything but a record-shattering triumph. But his preening, and his whining about being persecuted by the intelligence services, really twists the knife.
That’s what he does, so we are where we are:
Since the election, the media and many Democratic politicians have wrung their hands over their failure to pay attention to the legitimate anger in the Trump-tilting parts of the country. And good for them.
But it’s time to remember that there are about 66 million Clinton voters who have a right to be angry, too.
They have that right, for all the good that does them now, and Jonathan Chait explains why:
Donald Trump’s first press conference since the summer was a surreal exercise in the assertion of immunity from accountability. He either ignored questions about his behavior, or dismissed the questions as illegitimate. He painted a chilling depiction of politics not as an ongoing process but as a one-time event, settled in his favor by the presidential campaign, once and for all.
To demonstrate that, Chait offers this:
Trump was asked about reports that intelligence agencies had concluded Russia hacked his opponents for the specific purpose of helping him win. He did not answer the question. Instead he expressed his view that having good relations with Russia would be nice, and concluded by mocking his Democratic opponent: “Do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Does anybody in this room really believe that? Give me a break.”
It is abnormal, to say the least, for a president-elect to defend his behavior by pivoting to a contrast with the candidate he defeated. But invoking Clinton served a purpose that became clear as the press conference drew on. It defined any question he disapproved of as a challenge to his legitimacy, and thus a campaign matter, and thus by definition moot. Asked about Senator Lindsey Graham’s proposal to introduce tougher sanctions on Russia, Trump harkened back to the campaign as well. “Lindsey Graham – I’ve been competing with him for a long time,” he said, “He is going to crack that one-percent barrier one day. I didn’t realize Lindsey Graham is still at it.” Graham, of course, is not “still at it.” He is governing, not running against Trump. But to Trump, any action that might challenge him is indistinguishable from a contest for power.
Chait is not hopeful:
It is impossible to know what course American democracy will take under Trump’s presidency. The fears of authoritarianism may prove overblown, and Trump may govern like a normal Republican. But the initial signs are quite concerning. Trump believes he can demolish normal standards of behavior, like the expectation of disclosing tax returns, and placing assets in a blind trust. He has received the full cooperation of his party, which controls Congress and has blocked any investigation or other mechanism for exerting pressure. His dismissal of the news media might simply be a slightly amped-up version of the conservative tradition of media abuse, but it seems to augur something worse. Rather than making snide cracks about liberal bias, Trump escalated into abuse and total delegitimization.
Will the abuse of the media be seen as an idiosyncratic episode or the beginning of something worse to come? We don’t know. His early behavior is consistent with (though far from proof of) the thesis that he is an emerging autocrat.
The people have granted him license to steal and hide as he wishes. The bully has his pulpit.
He also has a potential cabinet, as Dana Milbank notes here:
As Trump was giving his first post-election news conference in Trump Tower, his nominee to be secretary of state was testifying in Washington – and Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief, showed why he earned Putin’s Order of Friendship award.
It was early in the nine-hour hearing when Tillerson said he might recommend revoking President Obama’s actions punishing Russia for its cyberattack during the American election, which Tillerson acknowledged was probably approved by Putin.
Sigh. Russia will make America great again. Those leaked emails helped America choose the right guy by revealing the truth about that awful woman. Trump said as much in his news conference – but then things shifted:
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) followed that with a blunt question: “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”
“I would not use that term,” the Russian Order of Friendship laureate replied.
Rubio offered to “help” Tillerson reach that conclusion, describing his targeting of schools and markets in Syria that have killed thousands of civilians, and his earlier attacks on Chechnya, where he killed 300,000 civilians using cluster munitions and bombs that kill by asphyxiation. “You are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin and his military have conducted war crimes?”
“I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” the nominee replied.
That was the wrong answer:
Rubio went on to ask about the broadly held view that Putin has approved the killing of “countless” opponents, dissidents and journalists.
“I do not have sufficient information to make that claim,” Tillerson replied.
“Do you think that was coincidental?” Rubio pressed.
Tillerson said “these things happen” to “people who speak up for freedom,” but he would need to know more.
Rubio was angry. “None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” he said. “These people are dead.”
There’s no good response to that. Tillerson had none. “Little Marco” nailed the big guy, who also doesn’t seem to have chatted with his potential new boss about things:
Tillerson offered a few welcome departures from his would-be boss’s positions: He embraced the Magnitsky law punishing human rights abuses and said Russia’s annexation of Crimea would not be recognized. He was more supportive of NATO than Trump has been.
Trump may have to take him aside and tell him none of that is the official line now, and never was from the start, which led to this:
Tillerson told Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that he had not yet discussed Russia with Trump, and he asserted that “to my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.” Congressional lobbying records show Exxon lobbied on many Russia sanctions bills.
Asked by Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) about how he would avoid being undermined as chief diplomat by the president’s “quickly drafted, not vetted” tweets on world affairs, Tillerson replied, “I have his cellphone number.”
“We’ll hope for the best there – unless you have anything else to add,” Young said. Tillerson didn’t.
There was nothing to add. Trump has introduced chaos into our political system, as a feature, not a bug. Chaos has been incorporated into the system. Tillerson doesn’t get it, yet, but the rest of us do. There’s not much that anyone can do about that now, so it was a good day to drive over to Malibu and sit in the sun and watch those surfers waiting for the right wave. We’re all waiting.