Donald Trump made his fortune being provocative, and often outrageous. He was always over-the-top, alternatively bragging and sneering, and never apologizing for anything. He pointed and mocked, and that made him rich – if he is rich (no one really knows and he will make sure no one ever knows) – but these are not “leadership” qualities. These are the traits of a gadfly – a critic of others and of the situation and the system that created the situation. And he is a brilliant gadfly. He knows what must go. And he can convince millions that whoever it is or whatever it is must go. But that’s as far as it goes. He doesn’t see what’s next. That’s never been his thing. That’s grunt work, for others. He stirs the pot. That’s his thing.
That hasn’t worked out now that he’s in charge of running things. He’s still working on getting rid of Obamacare. There’s nothing to take its place. There never was. He pulled us out of the Iran nuclear deal, because he had something better in mind. No one has seen that yet. No one knows what that is. It was the same with the Trans Pacific Partnership. He pulled us out of that and the Pacific Rim nations carried on without us, isolating us. Future trade agreements will exclude the United States, and Congress will not ratify his new version of NAFTA – which he hated. They see a lot of stupid stuff in his new version. He’s a brilliant critic in his crude and simplistic way – this or that has to go, now – much of the country cheers – but there is the morning after, and the next day, and the coming years. Now what? Where is he leading us?
The immediate issue was China:
Senior U.S. officials accused Beijing on Monday of reneging on commitments it had agreed to during negotiations for a comprehensive trade deal and vowed that punishing tariffs on Chinese imports would more than double Friday.
Despite the tough talk, Robert E. Lighthizer, the president’s chief trade negotiator, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration expects to host Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and a Chinese team for further talks in Washington on Thursday evening and Friday.
But with the officials publicly underscoring President Trump’s weekend anti-China broadside, prospects for a deal this week – as the administration had hoped for – appear to be fading.
“Over the course of the last week or so, we have seen erosion in commitments by China. I would say retreating from specific commitments that had already been made,” Lighthizer told reporters in Washington. “That, in our view, is unacceptable.”
The situation is complicated, but not that complicated. The people doing the grunt work for Trump had a complicated and delicate massive trade deal in place, ready to go. Trump tweeted – the Chinese will bend to our will and give us everything we ask and if they don’t we’ll slap massive tariffs on EVERYTHING they send here now and RUIN them. Trump was stirring the pot. He was being a provocateur. His base would be impressed. He’s tough, and the Chinese are cheats. He sneered at them. They have until the end of the week. They backed out. He sneered harder. They’ll send a small delegation to Washington now but this is over. Trump was provocative, and his critique of China’s trade policy was justified. They do cheat. But a critique is not a trade agreement. And sneering is not leadership.
But he can’t help himself, and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker report on how absurd this can get:
President Trump for months has griped, complained and tweeted about what he says is the unfair Russia “witch hunt” investigation that has consumed nearly half of his presidency.
Now, the president has floated a possible solution: two bonus years.
Trump over the weekend shared a tweet by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, in which Falwell complimented Trump for “no obstruction, no collusion” and a soaring economy, before adding, “Trump should have 2 years added to his 1st term as payback for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
Everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity at Fox News agreed with that, until the damage-control kicked in:
White House officials and others close to the president said he was joking and is not serious about trying to increase his first four-year term by 50 percent – an extension that would violate the Constitution and has no historical precedent.
The word was that the president knows better than that, but some were not so sure about that:
“Everything that he says is a trial balloon – even his, quote, jokes are trial balloons,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian rulers. “But if you look at what he jokes about, it’s always things like this – it’s the extension of his rights, it’s the infringement of liberties. And authoritarians are continually testing the boundaries to see what they can get away with, and everything he does is a challenge to Democrats to mount some response against him.”
What can he get away with? What if he said that someone told him he should declare martial law and suspend the Constitution, and dissolve Congress and assume its duties himself, and shut down the Supreme Court and assume its duties – so he would say what’s constitutional now? He’d insist that he’d never do that, but that this was an interesting idea – and leave it at that. Those who think he’s an awful president would go crazy! Cool! He’d own them. He loves that, but there’s this:
Trump’s defenders say the president is merely being provocative, expressing his real anger over the extent to which Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe has consumed his presidency. White House aides and other friends say they have not heard Trump privately discuss the possibility of an extended term – often an early warning sign he is seriously entertaining a controversial action.
But he planted an idea:
Falwell himself said in an interview Monday that he and Trump had never discussed the topic before and did not speak after the president shared his tweet. He said he believes there needs to be a “day of reckoning” for those responsible for the special counsel investigation, but understands Trump is not going to extend his current term by two years.
“I know there’s no constitutional mechanism to add a couple years to his term, but he definitely deserves to be compensated, so it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek,” Falwell said.
More broadly, the idea that the special counsel investigation resulted in two “stolen” years of Trump’s presidency has already become a reelection argument for Trump and his allies.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted about his “tremendous success” in office, despite the fact that “they have stolen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back.”
That’s the 2020 bumper sticker – THEY STOLE TWO YEARS!
But that’s all it is, or not:
During a closed-door fundraiser at his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida in March 2018, Trump addressed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent consolidation of power, noting with envy that Xi was now “president for life.”
“I think it’s great,” Trump said. “Maybe we’ll have to give it a shot some day.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was not amused, calling it “extremely offensive for the president of the United States to make those types of statements even if they are intended to be in jest.”
“When you look at people who have used authoritarian practices that have brought down democracies, they have used excuses to stay in power,” Cardin added when asked why he felt such remarks were dangerous. “It may be in jest, but you still don’t do that in jest.”
Trump does that. But what’s the joke? Who knows? And how is anyone supposed to react to what may or may not be a joke?
Karen Tumulty addresses that question:
No one loves a good conspiracy theory as much as the man in the Oval Office. Indeed, that is how he launched his political career. He was the chief propagator for a shameful lie that the nation’s first African American president was not born in this country.
He continues to gin up new ones. But in addition to using them to stir his own base, Trump has become highly effective at fomenting preposterous scenarios that send his opposition into a conspiratorial frenzy.
Tumulty reviews that chain of events that led to that:
“After the best week ever for @realDonaldTrump – no obstruction, no collusion, NYT admits @BarackObama did spy on his campaign, & the economy is soaring,” Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, wrote. “I now support reparations-Trump should have 2 years added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
Reparations – get it? Falwell was sucking up to the president, distorting the results of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Trump’s possibly illegal effort to obstruct the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and making a racially insensitive reference to redressing the abomination of slavery. It was a three-fer, in less than 240 characters.
Trump himself continued the trolling with a tweet that read: “they have stolen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back.”
Traditional and social media took the bait, as Trump surely knew they would.
Tumulty reviews all that but it may not matter:
Trump has sent liberals into a panic over something that is not only a fantasy – there is no mechanism to add two years to a president’s term beyond a constitutional amendment – but a pointless distraction given that the election is still 18 months away. And all of this undermines trust in our institutions, which may be the biggest danger of all.
So I’d like to suggest trying something radical the next time Trump tweets something ridiculous: Ignore it. Don’t swing at everything he pitches over the plate.
There no doubt will be those who say that not jumping on each and every offensive thing he utters is “normalizing” Trump.
But, in fact, it would do the opposite. It would preserve a sense of proportion about Trump’s various sins, and keep a focus on the abuses of power that are actually happening right in front of us, rather than imagining fanciful ones.
So remember what is real, the abuses of power:
Most immediate among those at the moment is Trump’s threat to prevent Mueller from testifying before Congress. Mueller must explain himself in public, and clearly answer whether Trump and his allies – including Attorney General William P. Barr – have twisted the conclusions of his 448-page report.
Here’s a theory to chew on: If the report is truly the exoneration that Trump claims it is, why doesn’t he want to let Mueller talk about it?
Trump is preparing to do something that is truly out of bounds. In other words, it is the perfect moment for him to throw up a big cloud of dust.
But he was just being provocative. He has no standing to order that Mueller not be allowed to testify. Mueller is a private citizen now. Most of his report is public now – and a bestseller. Congress wants to ask him a few things about his report. Trump can’t stop this – so late in the day his people said that Trump doesn’t “want” Mueller to testify, but he can, but he shouldn’t really. But it would be great if Trump really could stop Mueller from ever saying another word about anything, wouldn’t it?
Trump just wants to be provocative:
President Trump has pardoned Michael Behenna, a former Army lieutenant who served five years in prison for the murder of an Iraqi prisoner in 2008.
Behenna, who was an Army Ranger in the 101st Airborne Division, was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone and sentenced to 25 years after killing Ali Mansur, a detainee and suspected al-Qaeda member. Behenna, who stripped Mansur naked, interrogated him without authorization and then shot him twice, has claimed repeatedly that he was acting in self-defense.
In a Monday evening statement, the White House announced Trump’s decision to sign an executive grant of clemency, which amounts to a full pardon, citing support from the military community…
Since his conviction, Behenna, an Oklahoma native, has won the support of former governor Mary Fallin (R), state Attorney General Mike Hunter (R), and more than 30 retired generals and admirals – among them Trump’s former special envoy for the Persian Gulf, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni.
But there are other serving generals and admirals who see this as a war crime, and a violation of the whole idea of duty and honor and country. The guy lost it and killed an innocent man whose very existence pissed him off. No soldier can be allowed to do that, but this matches what Trump said in 2015, when candidate Trump said he’d order our troops to kill the family members of ISIS – the women and especially the children – and that would fix the ISIS problem. Many pointed out that no soldier would carry out such an order. Trump exploded – they’d follow HIS order – everyone always follows his orders. And then General James Mattis pulled him aside and explained that is not what our soldiers do – ever – and then the whole thing was over. But Trump remembered. He pardoned this guy, and probably wished this guy had killed a few little kids too, in front of their terrorist fathers.
That’s his philosophy. Just do it. Be outrageous. Be provocative. That’s served him we’ll. That made him a reality-show star. That made him president. That may sink him:
More than 450 former federal prosecutors who worked in Republican and Democratic administrations have signed on to a statement asserting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings would have produced obstruction charges against President Trump – if not for the office he holds.
The statement – signed by myriad former career government employees as well as high-profile political appointees – offers a rebuttal to Attorney General William P. Barr’s determination that the evidence Mueller uncovered was “not sufficient” to establish that Trump committed a crime.
Barr was pushing bullshit, and now its 479 to his one, over a misunderstanding. Barr didn’t understand that Mueller was an ethical man:
Mueller had declined to say one way or the other whether Trump should have been charged, citing a Justice Department legal opinion that sitting presidents cannot be indicted, as well as concerns about the fairness of accusing someone for whom there can be no court proceeding.
But that has nothing to do with innocence:
“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice,” the former federal prosecutors wrote.
“We emphasize that these are not matters of close professional judgment,” they added. “Of course, there are potential defenses or arguments that could be raised in response to an indictment of the nature we describe here. But, to look at these facts and say that a prosecutor could not probably sustain a conviction for obstruction of justice – the standard set out in Principles of Federal Prosecution – runs counter to logic and our experience.”
None of this is a close call. Trump committed multiple felonies. And this isn’t leftie leftover hippies talking:
Among the high-profile signers are Bill Weld, a former U.S. attorney and Justice Department official in the Reagan administration who is running against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination; Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general in the George H. W. Bush administration; John S. Martin, a former U.S. attorney and federal judge appointed to his posts by Republican presidents; Paul Rosenzweig, who served as senior counsel to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr; and Jeffrey Harris, who worked as the principal assistant to Rudolph W. Giuliani when he was at the Justice Department in the Reagan administration.
The list also includes more than 20 former U.S. attorneys and more than 100 people with at least 20 years of service at the Justice Department – most of them former career officials. The signers worked in every presidential administration since that of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
And they all saw what they saw:
By the report’s account, Trump – after learning he was being investigated for obstruction – told his White House counsel to have Mueller removed. And when that did not work, according to Mueller’s report, Trump tried to have a message passed to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of Mueller’s authority. Of that episode, Mueller’s team wrote there was “substantial evidence” to indicate Trump was trying to “prevent further investigative scrutiny” of himself and his campaign.
“All of this conduct – trying to control and impede the investigation against the President by leveraging his authority over others – is similar to conduct we have seen charged against other public officials and people in powerful positions,” the former federal prosecutors wrote in their letter.
They wrote that prosecuting such cases was “critical because unchecked obstruction – which allows intentional interference with criminal investigations to go unpunished – puts our whole system of justice at risk.”
Something should be done. And Mueller hinted at that:
Mueller’s team wrote that it decided not to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” in part because of the Justice Department opinion on not indicting sitting presidents and because the evidence obtained “presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved” if they were to do so.
“At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mueller’s team wrote.
So yes, something should be done. That leaves impeachment. The evidence is there, in plain sight.
The provocateur left the evidence out there in plain sight, because he likes to be outrageous and bold, and he’s not concerned with what’s next. That will work itself out one way or another. And maybe this time it will work itself out. Trump might want to worry about that.