As Bad As It Gets

Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem. There was George Bush – the second one – the one with that perpetual deer-in-the-headlights look. It was clear he didn’t know much about the world – who was who and what was where, and the history of the inevitable conflicts and the treaties put in place to handle those. He said he trusted his gut. He had no other choice – but he surrounded himself with people who knew what was what. Dick Cheney was a nasty man, but a smart man who knew all the players, and how America got to where it had ended up in those days. He seemed to be in charge. He made well-informed disastrous decisions. George Bush was fine with that. He acquiesced. Maybe he thought those were his decisions – but it didn’t matter. Maybe they were. There’s no functional distinction there.

It was the same with the economy. Regulate next to nothing. Give tax breaks to the one percent. The economy will hum right along – but when it all came crashing down in George Bush’s last year he listened to Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson. They knew stuff, so George Bush went on national television and said America had to come up with vast sums of money to save what was left of the economy. Congress initially balked, but George pointed to Ben and Hank – he himself stepped back. Listen to them. Congress did, and passed TARP and the world didn’t end. George Bush didn’t have much of an ego. That’s a kind of wisdom. That saved the day.

It’s odd to miss George Bush, but that’s inevitable. Sometimes things are as bad as they seem. Consider a president with a massive ego – who also doesn’t know who is who and what is where, and the history of the inevitable conflicts and the treaties put in place to handle those. Then consider a president has surrounded himself with those who know even less – business people, an alt-right firebrand, a pretty daughter with a fashion business, and her husband, a young real estate tycoon with no government or diplomatic experience at all. There’s no Dick Cheney. There’s just a president with a nearly pathologically huge ego, who is easily offended and extraordinarily vengeful – standing alone.

That makes what Roger Cohen reports seem inevitable:

When Donald Trump met Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany earlier this month, he put on one of his most truculent and ignorant performances. He wanted money – piles of it – for Germany’s defense, raged about the financial killing China was making from last year’s Paris climate accord and kept “frequently and brutally changing the subject when not interested, which was the case with the European Union.”

Cohen didn’t make this up:

This was the summation provided to me by a senior European diplomat briefed on the meeting. Trump’s preparedness was roughly that of a fourth grader. He began the conversation by telling Merkel that Germany owes the United States hundreds of billions of dollars for defending it through NATO, and concluded by saying, “You are terrific” but you still owe all that dough. Little else concerned him.

Trump knew nothing of the proposed European-American deal known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, little about Russian aggression in Ukraine or the Minsk agreements, and was so scatterbrained that German officials concluded that the president’s daughter Ivanka, who had no formal reason to be there, was the more prepared and helpful.

Things are as bad as they seem:

Merkel is not one to fuss. But Trump’s behavior appalled her entourage and reinforced a conclusion already reached about this presidency in several European capitals: It is possible to do business with Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but these officials are flying blind because above them at the White House rages a whirlwind of incompetence and ignorance.

Trump’s United States of America has become an unserious country…

If so, others will have to step up:

It is the hour to stand up for the European Union. Its democratic shortfall, weak external borders and shared currency mistakes have contributed to a political backlash. Less appreciated are the peace and stability it has provided to hundreds of millions of people over generations and the myriad ways – from disappearing cellphone roaming charges to cheap borderless travel – it has improved life for Europeans whose forebears lived in a charnel house. No miracle ever marketed itself so miserably.

Merkel is the personification of the Union’s values; she was just bolstered by a local election victory. Russians have taken to the streets to protest against Putin’s corrupt regime and been brutalized. This is not over. Truculent Trump has abdicated responsibility. Europe must step into the void.

Someone has to lead the civilized world, because, as David Nakamura reports, Donald Trump is a bit busy at the moment:

As President Trump sought again to try to reset his governing agenda Tuesday, signing a sweeping executive order aimed at undoing his predecessor’s environmental legacy, a new report put the White House back on the defensive.

This time the news centered on the administration’s efforts to block former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying in the House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.

That’s always a bad sign:

The Washington Post reported exclusively that the Justice Department informed Yates that much of her possible testimony could be covered by the presidential communication privilege and, thus, barred from discussion at a congressional hearing. Yates had played a key role in the investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael T. Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials, and she had made clear to government officials that her testimony could contradict some statements made by White House officials, The Post reported.

Trump fired Yates, an Obama administration appointee, in January after she spoke out against his first travel ban and said her department would not defend it in court.

The report prompted an angry denial from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who stated at his daily briefing: “I hope she testifies. I look forward to it. To suggest in any way, shape or form that we stood in the way of that is 100 percent false.”

Yeah, but the White House couldn’t dispute the letters back and forth on this, and those were posted on line, and that’s the problem:

The questions over ties between Russian officials and Trump’s campaign have taken time and attention away from Trump’s goals of overhauling health care, building a border wall and ensuring Congress approves a spending bill next month to keep the government open.

It also raised new questions about the handling of the House investigation by Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who abruptly canceled a hearing Friday in which Yates and former intelligence officials were scheduled to testify. Nunes has rejected calls from Democrats and some Republicans to recuse himself or to hand over the investigation to a select committee to ensure impartiality.

Devin Nunes has made of mess of things, trying to cover for Trump, and now canceling all open sessions and closed sessions and regular meetings of his intelligence committee, while saying he won’t step down, and things are going just fine. His intelligence committee will meet again one day. He’s thinking about it.

The crew at the White House must be thinking about that too – they have Inspector Clouseau on their side – but that’s the least of their worries:

The White House had expected to spend the day focusing on Trump’s move to reverse Obama administration rules on carbon emissions by instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants.

The president traveled to EPA headquarters to sign the document, which also seeks to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing and remove the requirement that federal officials consider the impact of climate change when making decisions.

That was supposed to be the big story, but it wasn’t that big:

Trump cast his effort as a way to free businesses from burdensome regulations and to boost the economy, but some of his measures could take years to implement and are unlikely to alter broader trends that are shifting the nation’s electricity mix from coal-fired generation to natural gas and renewables.

The order is silent on whether the United States should withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which it has pledged to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 compared with 2005 levels. The administration remains divided on that question.

That may have been less than it seemed, but this was more than it seemed:

A bill to repeal a set of landmark privacy protections for Web users implemented two years ago is headed to Trump’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it. The repeal of the Obama administration rule was passed by the House on Tuesday after clearing the Senate last week.

The bill marks a sharp, partisan pivot toward letting Internet providers collect and sell their customers’ Web browsing history, location information, health data and other personal details.

Supporters of Tuesday’s repeal vote argued that the privacy regulations, written by the Federal Communications Commission, stifle innovation by forcing Internet providers to abide by unreasonably strict guidelines. Privacy advocates called the vote “a tremendous setback for America.”

“Donald Trump, by giving away our data to the country’s leading phone and cable giants, is further undermining American democracy,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

That won’t be popular. Once again, corporations matter and real actual people don’t. And this wasn’t even subtle, and then there was this:

Trump has pledged to put “America first,” but he’s not embracing America’s pastime – at least not on opening day.

The Washington Nationals invited the president to throw out the first pitch Monday when they open the season against the Miami Marlins. But the White House turned the team down.

Trump isn’t even trying, but Ben Mathis-Lilley has a bit of fun with his Top Ten reasons Donald Trump is refusing to throw out the first pitch of the Nationals’ baseball season, which include these:

  1. Gesture would implicitly condone actions of Cuban players who helped Ted Cruz’s dad shoot President Kennedy in the head
  1. Hands too small, can’t grab ball
  1. Unclear where ball should be grabbed anyway given that it doesn’t have a [redacted]

And this:

  1. Presence of actual, complete, non-imaginary wall in outfield makes him jealous

And these:

  1. Would probably be booed mercilessly given that he has an extremely low approval rating and would be appearing in a city in which he only got four percent of the vote anyway
  1. Still upset about 1947 integration of the major leagues

This list thing is about the only fun anyone was having. Susan Matthews, Slate’s science editor, rips into Trump on that other matter:

In stripping back Obama administration regulations aimed at lowering carbon emissions, Trump is practically guaranteeing that our country’s emissions – which have been flat for the past few years – will not drop enough for us to meet our commitment to the Paris Agreement and could in fact increase again. But we already knew Trump would make such reckless choices.

It’s more puzzling that Trump would create an order that is also so economically idiotic. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been dispatched to defend the rule as “both pro-jobs and pro-environment,” but so far his talking points have failed to show how the rule is any good for either. Indeed, the New York Times’ Coral Davenport has a particularly scathing assessment of why rolling back the Clean Power Plan and other environmental regulations won’t restore jobs. There are essentially three factors at play here. First, these regulations didn’t kill jobs in the first place, so reversing them won’t help. Second, the decline in energy jobs is due to automation, so even if mines stay open, new jobs aren’t going to follow. Third, despite the outsize role that the coal industry plays in election rhetoric, it constitutes a very small sliver of the economy – less than 100,000 jobs since as far back as 2003. When asked on Tuesday how many coal jobs the order would bring back, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he was “not aware of an estimate.”

That happens in administration that doesn’t know what’s what.

Much like the disastrous and cruel Muslim ban, this executive order attempts to fix a problem of Donald Trump’s invention. This order, too, demonstrates the same lack of thought regarding how, exactly, the ideas proposed here will fix this fake problem. Fortunately, it is also likely to be subject to extensive court battles, as many environmental watchdogs are itching to take on Trump. One potential challenge could focus on the fact that these reversals will encourage the release of chemicals that harm human health, something the Clean Air Act prevents.

In will be hard to get around the Clean Air Act. These guys couldn’t even repeal Obamacare when they finally got the chance, and Trump is missing the point here:

If Trump really wanted to put people to work in the energy sector, he would focus his efforts on renewable energy—particularly solar energy. The industry already provides more Americans with jobs than oil and gas extraction does, and it’s growing at 12 times the rate of general job creation. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimated in 2016 that the U.S. had more than 200,000 solar jobs while the Solar Foundation estimated that would grow to more than 280,000 within the year.

There’s only one way to see this:

Trump’s policy is more of a stunt than an attempt to, you know, help America. Beyond being a powerful economic engine, renewable energy is popular – even among Trump voters and climate change deniers. A post-election survey conducted by the University of New Hampshire found that 73 percent of respondents thought renewable energy should be a higher priority than oil exploration. Trump voters showed the lowest preference, but even 48 percent of them favor renewable energy exploration.

Oh well. Truculent Trump had a tantrum again, but that’s who he is:

Trump’s own rhetoric on renewable energy has vacillated wildly – in front of some crowds he professes to love it while at other times he laments that wind turbines occasionally kill birds (a bargain anyone with an actual understanding of the numbers is happy to accept). Mostly, he views renewable energy as a cute side project, and he sees coal, oil, and fossil fuels as the heavy hitters. No doubt this is a manifestation of his desire to seem strong and powerful – and also likely his desire to continue to reward his friends who are heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry. Regardless of Trump’s motivation, his willingness to make bad economic policy based on these misconceptions is troubling.

Angela Merkel is not one to fuss. Susan Matthews fusses. Others should, and Max Ehrenfreund adds another twist to this:

President Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan both want to rewrite the tax code, but their proposals differ on how much tax relief to give the middle class.

Trump wants a tax cut across the board, according to the plan he published during the campaign. He has proposed relief for the wealthy especially, but also for less affluent households. The plan that Ryan (R-Wis.) and his colleagues in the House have put forward would not substantially reduce taxes for the middle class, and many households would pay more.

Trump’s plan arguably reflects his unique style of conservative populism. The proposal would be extremely costly for the government, and the president’s past comments suggest he would be willing to put the federal government deeper into debt to fund breaks for the middle class.

Ryan’s plan would instead simplify and streamline the tax code in accordance with conservative orthodoxy, eliminating the goodies for households with modest incomes that Trump would preserve or expand.

Trump wants to have his way. He’s willing to put the federal government deeper into debt to fund what he wants. Putting the federal government deeper into debt to fund people who don’t matter scares the crap out of Paul Ryan, and that is what this is about:

During the campaign, Trump proposed a plan that would have reduced taxes drastically, especially for the wealthy but also for the poor and working class. Meanwhile, Ryan and his colleagues put together a plan that was equally generous to the rich but that would give poor and middle-class taxpayers less of a break. The speaker’s plan would even have increased taxes on some in the upper middle class.

After a decade, 99.6 percent of the tax relief Ryan proposed would have accrued to the wealthiest one percent of the country. In Trump’s plan, 50.8 percent of the relief would have gone to that group, according to analyses by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

That’s a curious fight. Cheer on Donald Trump on this one, if you’re a Bernie Sanders type, but realize Trump’s position can change. Ryan rolled him on the Obamacare replacement. Twenty-four millions Americans would have lost health coverage. Trump was fine with that. Angela Merkel had it right. Don’t take Donald Trump seriously. Talk to Ivanka.

Michelle Goldberg worries about all of this and offers an anecdote:

Rick Wilson, the GOP strategist who has emerged as a leading anti-Trump gadfly, was recently talking to a good friend of his who serves in Congress, representing a moderate but solidly Republican district in the upper Midwest. “He loathes Donald Trump,” Wilson told me. “Hates him with the fire of a million suns.” Yet the congressman told Wilson he’s terrified to cross the president, saying, “‘if I say something about Trump, one tweet could kill me.'”

It is wise to consider a president with a nearly pathologically huge ego, who is easily offended and extraordinarily vengeful, but that kind of wisdom infuriates Goldberg:

Before Trump’s election, I thought I had a low opinion of Republican members of Congress. Yet it turns out I had much more faith in them than I realized, because I’ve been stupefied by their passivity in the face of Trump’s corruption and incompetence. Sure, Republicans are eager for massive tax cuts, the end of Roe v. Wade, and the opportunity to exploit natural resources without oversight from environmental regulators. But I’d assumed that they also valued America’s putative leadership in world affairs, and I couldn’t imagine that they’d accept even the possibility of Vladimir Putin manipulating our democracy. Shouldn’t we be able to count on jingoist pride from politicians who’ve spent decades beating their chests about patriotism? As cliché as it sounds, I have continually wondered through the first two months of this administration: Have they no shame?

Yes, the Russian thing should have made a difference, but it didn’t:

Talking to Republican Trump critics the question seems naïve. “The fact of the matter is when they’re confronted with criminal malfeasance, and things that at the very minimum border on collusion with the enemy, they’re not going to do shit,” Wilson says of Republicans in Congress. “Donald Trump could murder a child on the White House lawn and eat him raw and those pussies in Congress will never do a thing.”

That’s harsh, but Goldberg thinks appropriately so:

Meanwhile, flagrant violations of American laws and norms go unchecked. Few in government are even trying to police Trump’s manifold financial conflicts of interest. The president is blatantly selling access to himself by doubling membership fees at his private club, Mar-a-Lago. And as Politico reported, the club doesn’t keep visitor logs, meaning there’s no way to track whom Trump and his relatives are meeting with. Presidential daughter Ivanka Trump is assuming an ethically dubious semi-governmental position; in meetings with foreign leaders she plays a larger role than our elusive secretary of state. “Right now the American political system is increasingly looking like a dystopic third-world banana republic, and the Republican Party is complicit in allowing this to happen,” says Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank.

Things really are as bad as they seem:

At least some Republicans realize that the Trump presidency is a debacle, even if they refuse to publicly say so. Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart who quit last May over the website’s slavish fealty to Trump, says the Republicans he knows are paralyzed. “I’ve not talked to anyone who doesn’t malign the situation that they and the Republican Party overall is in,” says Bardella, who previously worked as an aide to Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. Many Republicans, Bardella says, “recognize that as this goes on, and they further alienate themselves from everybody who has a brain, that there are some very long-term challenges for the Republican Party. But none of them know how to stop this or how to fight back.”

That’s as bad as it gets. No one was supposed to miss George Bush – or Dick Cheney – especially Dick Cheney – but there you have it. Well-informed disastrous decisions are preferable to this. And those guys weren’t even that well-informed. But they tried. Trump isn’t even trying. We may not live through this.

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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