This President Thing

Some rollouts don’t go well. In 1958 Ford rolled out their new Edsel – and America laughed. This was “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon” – the odd grill was unfortunate. And it was just another Ford. Two years later it was gone, and in 1970 it was the Chevrolet Vega – a nice little car that immediately fell apart after purchase, or if it didn’t fall apart, soon rusted away. Owners also kept a few cans of oil in the trunk. Most of that would end up on the driveway. Chevrolet killed the Vega a few years later. That had been a mistake. And then there was that New Coke in 1985 – Coca-Cola changed the flavor a bit because they had been losing market-share. It tasted awful. Three months later Coca-Cola Classic hit the market. Oops.

These are cautionary tales. New and bold is sometimes stupid. Know what you’re doing, and why, and do your homework, and do some planning – and, of course, have a good product, not so much a new product, but a good product. Make it bulletproof – and if you’re the president, don’t sign an executive order banning all inbound travel from seven Muslim counties and say it’s not that “Muslim ban” you had been talking about, and tell no one else in government what you’re doing, and drop it on everyone on a Friday night. This was new and bold, and stupid, and a mess. It included all green card holders – legal permanent residents of the United States who had been visiting their folks back home – unless it didn’t, unless it did. That was never clear. It was just “extreme vetting” and not a total ban, unless it was. It only affected 109 inbound travelers, as the white House said. The State Department said they had revoked 100,000 visas. Homeland Security said no, it was more like 60,000 visas or so – but they weren’t sure.

All hell broke loose. Families were torn apart – relatives shoved back on planes and sent back to wherever. America’s reputation, as a welcoming place for those who want to enjoy freedom and make something of their lives, was shattered. The world howled. ISIS and al-Qaeda sneered and gloated. There were massive protests all across America and around the world – and the inevitable legal challenge. Washington and Minnesota found a federal judge who issued an injunction that forced the Trump administration to suspend the whole thing – this was harming their states. Businesses lost key employees. Universities lost key faculty and students. Hospitals and communities lost their doctors. And, as it seemed to target Muslims and favor Christians, this was unconstitutional. It also made us less safe – it proved we hated Muslims or something – but the states had no standing there. That’s Trump’s call.

The Trump administration fought back. They asked the appropriate federal circuit court to issue a stay on the injunction – to let them resume their new and bold effort. This was the president’s call. The states had no standing. A circuit court emergency panel agreed to hear their argument – and twenty other states filed amicus briefs to support the original two states. So did all the tech giants – Microsoft and Google and Amazon and all the rest. This was not a smooth rollout for Trump.

And then it got worse:

A Justice Department lawyer on Tuesday said courts should not second-guess President Trump’s targeted travel ban, drawing skepticism from a three-judge federal appeals panel weighing the limits of executive authority in cases of national security.

But even August E. Flentje, the Justice Department’s lawyer, sensed he was not gaining ground with that line of argument. “I’m not sure I’m convincing the court,” Mr. Flentje said.

That may not matter:

No matter how the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rules – in a decision that is expected within days – an appeal to the United States Supreme Court is likely. That court remains short-handed and could deadlock. A 4-to-4 tie in the Supreme Court would leave the appeals court’s ruling in place.

That’s the danger:

The appeals court judges sometimes seemed taken aback by the assertiveness of the administration’s position, which in places came close to saying the court was without power to make judgments about Mr. Trump’s actions.

“This is a traditional national security judgment that is assigned to the political branches,” Mr. Flentje said.

“Are you arguing, then, that the president’s decision in that regard is unreviewable?” Judge Michelle T. Friedland asked a few minutes later.

Mr. Flentje paused. Then he said yes.

“There are obviously constitutional limitations, but we’re discussing the risk assessment,” he said.

Judge Friedland asked what those limitations were, and Mr. Flentje did not provide a direct answer.

That’s the core of this. Donald Trump is new to this presidency thing. A president’s decisions are reviewable. Nixon learned that the hard way, but there was more:

Judge Friedland, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, did not seem persuaded that immediate suspension of travel from the seven countries was necessary.

“Has the government pointed to any evidence connecting these countries with terrorism?” she asked Mr. Flentje.

He responded that the government had not had an opportunity to present evidence in court given the pace of the litigation. “These proceedings have been moving quite fast, and we’re doing the best we can,” Mr. Flentje said.

With that, Judge Friedland said, the government’s appeal may be premature.

Know what you’re doing, and why, and do your homework – that’s always good advice – but there was that other argument:

Mr. Flentje said the travel ban was well within Mr. Trump’s legal authority. A federal statute specifically gave presidents the power to deny entry to people whose presence would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States,” he said.

He added that the court should not question Mr. Trump’s motives, and should confine itself instead to “the four corners of the document.” He said the executive order did not, on its face, discriminate on the basis of religion.

Mr. Purcell, the lawyer for Washington State, responded that the underlying purpose of the executive order was religious discrimination. As a candidate, Mr. Purcell said, Mr. Trump had “called for a complete ban on the entry of Muslims.”

More recently, Mr. Trump has said he meant to favor Christian refugees. “The court can look behind the motives,” Mr. Purcell said.

Trump kind of hung himself there, so it was time to talk compromise:

As he closed his argument, Mr. Flentje, perhaps sensing that he was unlikely to achieve a complete victory, offered the court a middle ground. He asked, at a minimum, for the court to reinstate a part of the ban against people who have never been in the United States, calling this a “really key point.”

Reading from a brief, he conceded that those who could be allowed entry are “previously admitted aliens who are temporarily abroad now or who wish to travel and return to the United States in the future.”

Judge Clifton said that the administration might be in a better position to narrow its executive order. “Why shouldn’t we look to the executive branch to more clearly define what the order means?” he asked.

Mr. Purcell also said that it was hard to tell precisely what distinctions the government meant to draw. “They’ve changed their mind about five times” since the executive order was issued, he said.

Judge Friedland said that if the executive order violated the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion, the court could block it completely.

Oh shit. This presidency thing is hard, but it was also hard elsewhere:

Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.

Grisly photographs of children apparently killed in the crossfire of a 50-minute firefight during the raid caused outrage in Yemen. A member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was also killed in the operation.

While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” – a characterization it repeated on Tuesday – the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Mr. Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.

Trump says that would be new and bold, but there’s a backstory here:

Military officials got Donald Trump to agree to the botched Yemen raid by suggesting Barack Obama would never have had the courage to do it, it has been reported.

The raid, which had been planned for two months before Mr Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office, killed 30 civilians and one US Navy SEAL but failed to kill its alleged target, al Qaeda leader Qassim al Rimi.

It is currently unclear how al Rimi escaped or if he was even at the site at the time of the raid but he later released a video taunting Mr Trump as a “fool”.

Oh shit. But the odd thing is this:

Mr Obama had reportedly been told about the plan to kill al Rimi, who took over control of the Yemeni affiliate of the terror organisation in 2015, but held off approving it because his advisors had wanted to wait until a moonless night which would not have happened again till after he left office, the New York Times reported.

But Defense Secretary, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, reportedly convinced Mr Trump to go ahead with the raid by suggesting Mr Obama would never have been so bold as to actually go through with it.

Donald Trump is new to this presidency thing. They knew that. They knew which buttons to push, and Martin Longman adds this:

Most of the focus recently has been on Trump’s reorganization of the National Security Council, in which he demoted incoming National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and Joint Chiefs chairman Dunford and elevated white supremacist political operative Steve Bannon. But here we see Dunford manipulating Trump with grade school playground psychology.

That’s not comforting, nor is this:

At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people’s property.

At the meeting, Trump asked the assembled sheriffs if anyone wanted to “make a statement as to how we can bring about law enforcement in a very good civil lovely way, but we have to stop crime, right?”

Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime.

Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”

“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected.

“And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”

“Who’s the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room.

Kevin Drum points out that the target here was probably Konni Burton:

Before the 85th Texas Legislative Session formally opened on Tuesday, state lawmakers had already filed a handful of bills that would curb or strike down the law enforcement practice known as civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize assets from those suspected, not charged or convicted, of involvement in criminal activity.

Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, has her name on the most comprehensive of the lot. Senate Bill 380 was pre-filed on Dec. 20 and would reform asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state of Texas from taking an individual’s property without a criminal conviction, in most cases…

Burton’s bill aims to make sure the possessors of that property, or cash in many cases, are actually criminals and the property related to actual crime before the cops have the right to seize it. Predictably, opposition to such bills comes mainly from law enforcement agencies that seize cash and stand to gain from the sale of seized property.

That’s how police and sheriff departments stay solvent – cash anytime they want it – but perhaps Trump didn’t know that. These guys counted on that, and pushed the right buttons, as Drum explains:

This demonstrates the problem with Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style. My guess is that he has no idea what civil asset forfeiture is and has no real opinion about it. If, say, Trump had been in a meeting with a few senators, and Bob Goodlatte had remarked that “police can seize your money even if you weren’t convicted of a crime,” Trump probably would have reflexively answered, “Can you believe that?” Instead, a sheriff said it was a bad thing related to Mexicans, so Trump automatically agreed with him. That means it’s now official Trump administration policy.

Sad. But then again, Jeff Sessions is a huge fan of civil asset forfeiture and all the corrupt incentives it creates, so he probably would have gotten Trump on board one way or another.

Trump can be used. Damn, this presidency thing is hard, and you have to be so careful:

President Trump met Tuesday morning with a group of sheriffs from the National Sheriffs Association, a group that consists of more than 3,000 sheriffs from around the country. And to this sworn group of law enforcement veterans, with reporters taking notes, he again repeated a falsehood about the murder rate in America.

Trump told the sheriffs, “The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” He blamed the news media for not publicizing this development, then added, “But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.”

His point was that the lying and dishonest press won’t report that, that only he (heroically) sees the truth, but there is a problem:

The country’s murder rate is not the highest it’s been in 47 years. It is almost at its lowest point, actually, according to the FBI, which gathers statistics every year from police departments around the country.

The murder rate is defined as the number of murders and non-negligent homicides per 100,000 residents. Beginning in 1957, when the rate was 4.0 murders per 100,000 residents, the rate rose steadily to a high of 10.2 in 1980. It then steadily dropped, to 7.4 in 1996, to 6.1 in 2006, to 4.4 in 2014. It went up in 2015 to 4.9. But that is less than half the murder rate of 1980. The raw number of homicides in America has actually declined from 19,645 in 1996 to 15,696 in 2015, even while the population has risen from 265 million in 1996 to 321 million in 2015.

The violent crime rate in America also has plummeted over the years.

Oops. Rolling out a new presidency is hard, but the Huffington Post has its sources deep inside the White House and reports this:

President Donald Trump was confused about the dollar: Was it a strong one that’s good for the economy? Or a weak one?

So he made a call – except not to any of the business leaders Trump brought into his administration or even to an old friend from his days in real estate. Instead, he called his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, according to two sources familiar with Flynn’s accounts of the incident.

Flynn has a long record in counterintelligence but not in macroeconomics. And he told Trump he didn’t know, that it wasn’t his area of expertise, that, perhaps, Trump should ask an economist instead.

Trump was not thrilled with that response – but that may have been a function of the time of day. Trump had placed the call at 3 a.m., according to one of Flynn’s retellings – although neither the White House nor Flynn’s office responded to requests for confirmation about that detail.

This may be bullshit. Someone leaked. Someone said that Flynn was joking about this. They might have other motives, or not:

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s volatile behavior has created an environment ripe for leaks from his executive agencies and even within his White House. And while leaks typically involve staffers sabotaging each other to improve their own standing or trying to scuttle policy ideas they find genuinely problematic, Trump’s two-week-old administration has a third category: leaks from White House and agency officials alarmed by the president’s conduct.

“I’ve been in this town for 26 years. I have never seen anything like this,” said Eliot Cohen, a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush and a member of his National Security Council. “I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.”

Maybe he’s just new to the job, but this leads to some odd places:

CNN anchor Jake Tapper and President Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, went toe-to-toe in a 25-minute-long interview on Tuesday that was punctuated by several heated exchanges over the accuracy of statements the president has made and the media’s treatment of Trump.

The tense interview comes after CNN says it declined to have Conway on Tapper’s Sunday show, “State of the Union,” because of concerns over her credibility.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that CNN had retracted its statement, but the network fired back, saying it stood by its concerns about Conway.

Tapper and Conway did not broach that conflict but touched on several other dustups between the media and the Trump administration that have colored the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Tapper repeatedly sought to hold Conway accountable for the Trump administration dismissing press reports it doesn’t like as fake news.

He noted that Conway has had to apologize for claiming that a massacre took place in Bowling Green, Ky., when in fact it was merely the spot where a couple of would-be terrorists were arrested for hatching a scheme.

He put her on the spot:

“It is difficult to hear criticism from the White House, which has such little regard day in, day out, for facts, for truth and who calls us fake news for stories that they don’t like,” Tapper said.

Conway kept her composure and repeatedly sought to offer an “olive branch” to CNN and other media outlets that have been butting heads with Trump and his aides ever since the campaign.

But she also vented frustration with the coverage the White House gets, insisting it is always negative and that the “palace intrigue” stories about the power dynamics within the administration are almost always false.

Or they’re always true. Who knows? But that wasn’t the issue:

Tapper asked Conway directly if she believes CNN is “fake news.”

“I don’t think CNN is fake news,” she responded. “I think there are some reports everywhere, in print, on TV, on radio, in conversation that are not well researched and are sometimes based on falseness and are actually hurtful.”

Tapper also ripped Trump for claiming that the news media has failed to cover international terrorist attacks because it harbors a secret agenda, arguing that CNN has reporters active in terrorist hotspots around the world putting their lives at risk to report on those incidents.

“He was saying the media does not cover these stories because we don’t want to cover them because we have some sort of agenda,” Tapper said. “That’s what he was suggesting and it’s offensive given the fact that CNN and other media organizations have reporters in danger right now in war zones covering [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]. And I just don’t understand how the president can make an attack like that.”

Conway acknowledged CNN’s coverage of several high-profile terror attacks but argued that the media remains obsessed with covering Trump as if the campaign is still going on and that it could do a better job of framing the threat of radical Islam.

In short, stop talking about Trump. Talk about terrorism. We’re all gonna die!

CNN might not agree to do that, and some Trump folks aren’t as (relatively) nice as Conway, like this guy:

Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, said Monday that the administration will continue using the term “fake news” until the media understands that their “monumental desire” to attack the President is wrong.

“There is a monumental desire on behalf of the majority of the media, not just the pollsters, the majority of the media to attack a duly elected President in the second week of his term,” Gorka, a former Breitbart editor who also holds a PhD in political science, told syndicated conservative radio host Michael Medved.

“That’s how unhealthy the situation is and until the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, ‘fake news.’ I’m sorry, Michael. That’s the reality,” he added.

In short, stop talking about Trump, or pay the price. “Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.” It’s the same sort of thing, and it scares Paul Waldman:

The latest bit of ridiculousness from the Trump administration followed a pattern that is already familiar: the President says something not just false but ludicrously false; his aides scramble to convince reporters that what he said was actually true and fail miserably, only making themselves look foolish in the attempt; what follows is a wave of withering fact-checks and mockery; and the whole thing serves to reinforce Trump’s opponents’ view that he’s a liar and his supporters’ view that the media are out to get him and can’t be trusted.

But if we take a step back, there’s a different way to understand what’s going on. Donald Trump and his allies want Americans to exist in a state of perpetual fear. That will help maintain his support (such as it is) and give him the ability to justify not only the kind of white nationalist policies he has already promised, but even more draconian moves and expansions of his power that he will surely attempt once there’s a terrorist attack he can exploit.

That may be giving Trump too much credit for actual planning, but there’s a pattern here:

Trump’s presidency, like his campaign, is built on a set of powerful negative emotions: fear, hate, disgust, contempt, resentment. When Americans think of the world outside our borders, he wants us to think of two things: foreigners that are ripping us off, and foreigners that are trying to kill us.

That’s what’s scary:

What is all this leading to? We need to be seriously concerned about a Reichstag Fire scenario, in which some dramatic event like a terrorist attack occurs, and the administration moves swiftly to exploit it for its own ends. We’ve been through that before and not that long ago. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress rushed to pass the USA PATRIOT Act, giving the government sweeping new powers to monitor, detain, and spy on Americans. In the atmosphere of fear and anger, it was passed 357-66 in the House and 98-1 in the Senate.

That happened under the Bush administration, which in retrospect looks moderate and thoughtful compared to this one. There will be some kind of terrorist attack eventually, simply because they’re a regular occurrence. Maybe one person will be killed, or five, or 50. When it happens, Trump will say, “See? You should be afraid, just like I told you.”

That’s essentially the argument his attorney was making to that emergency panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit – he’s president, and he’s right, and he cannot be questioned. They were telling him, and Donald Trump, that’s not how things work. This presidency thing is hard. Know what you’re doing, and why, and do your homework, and do some planning – and, of course, have a good product.

Is that so hard? New Coke tasted awful. This tastes worse.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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