The Irrelevant President

Foreign travel is always a challenge. Nothing is quite right – a good thing and the whole point of travel – because things there are “right” for over there. The traveler learns other ways of living and being in this world. But there always are those small “home” comforts – a Starbucks on almost every corner and a McDonalds here and there – and if you need socks or toothpaste or most anything in Paris, Monoprix is their Target – and everywhere. That’ll seem familiar, and watch The Simpsons on television there, dubbed in French of course, and you’ll get the hang of the language. You’ll be fine.

But things won’t be the same. That can be unnerving. Alex Ward notes how Donald Trump was unnerved:

Hours after arriving in the United Kingdom for three days of vital meetings, President Donald Trump complained about not having access to one of his favorite home comforts: Fox News.

The president first stopped to visit the American ambassador’s residence in London on Monday. While Trump is accustomed to seeing his favorite conservative commentators on television when he walks around the White House, he had no such luck at the diplomatic home.

Here’s why: CNN International airs in more than 200 countries and territories, including the UK. Viewers can watch Fox News in many nations too, but it’s not available in Britain.

21st Century Fox, the news channel’s parent company, took it off the UK’s airwaves in 2017 because it didn’t prove a commercial success. What’s more, the UK’s media regulator said that the conservative channel didn’t abide by the country’s impartiality rules.

Yes, Britain is a nation without Fox News. That might explain that nation’s distaste for Trump, but Ward notes that Trump had another immediate problem:

The core of Trump’s complaint right now seems to be something much more immediate and personal: He just wants to watch Fox News. It’d make him feel better.

That’s quite the insight into the president: Ahead of big diplomatic engagements – in this case with the queen and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, among others – Trump let the world know that all it takes to throw him off his game is to put CNN on TV and keep Fox News out of view.

One could imagine adversarial nations thinking of ways to ensure Trump only has access to CNN when he visits them.

Ward may be right, because the New York Times reported this:

President Trump on Monday floated the notion of a consumer boycott of AT&T, the telecommunications firm turned media colossus, an apparent attempt to punish the company for the news coverage produced by one of its subsidiaries, CNN.

“I believe that if people stopped using or subscribing to @ATT, they would be forced to make big changes at @CNN, which is dying in the ratings anyway,” the president wrote on Twitter, shortly after touching down in Britain for a state visit. “It is so unfair with such bad, Fake News! Why wouldn’t they act? When the World watches @CNN, it gets a false picture of USA. Sad!”

Mr. Trump, who had apparently been watching CNN during his trans-Atlantic flight, complained about the channel’s coverage in an earlier tweet: “All negative & so much Fake News, very bad for U.S.” He added: “Why doesn’t owner @ATT do something?”

AT&T, the telecommunications firm turned media colossus, did nothing, because everyone knows this guy:

Complaining about CNN is typical for Mr. Trump, who has vilified the network since his presidential campaign. And this was not the first time that he had attacked an American news organization while on foreign soil. In July, at a news conference in Britain with the Prime Minister, Theresa May, the president denounced CNN as “fake news” and refused to take questions from its correspondent Jim Acosta.

Still, Mr. Trump’s message on Monday was a notable public lashing of AT&T in the wake of its $85 billion acquisition of CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, which catapulted the Texas-based telecom giant into the sharp-elbowed sphere of national media.

Representatives for AT&T and CNN declined to comment on Monday.

Others have done that for them:

Advocates of press freedom have raised alarms about Mr. Trump’s treatment of news organizations, particularly the signal it sends when he is abroad. Autocrats around the world have echoed Mr. Trump’s recitations of “fake news” in suppressing independent journalism.

Mr. Trump’s comments on Monday attracted attention from lawmakers back home. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic presidential candidate, wrote on Twitter that it was “Unbelievable” to see Mr. Trump “advocating boycotting an American company because the press isn’t covering him favorably.”

But of course there’s a backstory to all this:

The president’s animus toward CNN flared up in the buildup to AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, which was completed last year and placed the 24-hour news network – along with HBO, Turner Broadcasting and the Warner Bros. entertainment studios – under AT&T’s control.

Mr. Trump frequently impugned CNN and its journalists as his Department of Justice sued to block the deal, and White House advisers discussed the pending merger as a potential point of leverage over the news network. AT&T ultimately prevailed in court and placed the Time Warner properties in a new division, WarnerMedia.

Team Trump had a plan. These folks want this merger? The Department of Justice will approve that merger, if AT&T shuts down CNN – but the courts shot that down. Team Trump got only one win here:

The Trump administration’s handling of the AT&T merger contrasted with another major media deal, the Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of a majority of 21st Century Fox, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled parent company of the president’s preferred news network, Fox News. (Fox News stayed with the Murdoch family after that merger.) The Disney-Fox transaction received government approval six months after it was announced, an unusually short time frame.

But no one cares now:

The president’s call for a boycott did not appear to worry AT&T’s investors. Its stock price closed on Monday at $31.09 a share, up 1.7 percent.

Everyone ignored Trump and Matt Shuham adds more detail:

It appears Trump was still mad for CNN’s reporting that he’d called British royal Meghan Markle “nasty” in an interview – which he did, as audio of the exchange documented. Trump and his campaign raged against CNN reporting as much all weekend.

It’s hardly the first time Trump has called for a boycott – previously Apple, Megyn Kelly, Italy – nor even his first as President. He called for a boycott of Harley Davidson “if manufacturing moves overseas” in August last year, and tweeted “we should boycott Fake News CNN” in November 2017, in response to the network saying it would skip the White House Christmas Party.

But most of Trump’s targets are public figures or broadcasters accustomed to fielding insults. Going after a private conglomerate with major government contracts rings different ethics alarm bells, experts said.

That’s where things do get tricky:

Trump famously said during the 2016 presidential campaign that he would oppose AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner; AT&T’s lawyers attempted to use those statements against the Justice Department when the Trump administration sued to block the merger on anti-trust grounds in late 2017.

A judge ultimately approved the historic merger last June, but notably rejected AT&T’s effort to obtain records of the White House’s communications with the DOJ concerning similar mergers – an effort to prove “selective enforcement” against AT&T.

That would have been ugly, but this is ugly enough for now:

The New Yorker reported in March that Trump ordered his top economic adviser, then Gary Cohn, to pressure the Justice Department to block the merger before it did so; he also reportedly pressured then-White House chief of staff John Kelly on the same matter. Cohn and Kelly, reportedly, did not apply pressure to the DOJ.

Trump was having one of his many tantrums. They let him get that out of his system. And they ignored him. He was just venting. Or maybe he wasn’t:

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, compared Monday’s tweets to Trump’s attacks against Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. Bezos also owns the Washington Post, and Trump has accused the paper of unregistered lobbying on its owners’ behalf. The President even reportedly urged the postmaster general to raise postage rates for Amazon.

He does have his tantrums. Are they dangerous? London mayor Sadiq Khan thinks so:

This is a man who tried to exploit Londoners’ fears following a horrific terrorist attack on our city, amplified the tweets of a British far-right racist group, denounced as fake news robust scientific evidence warning of the dangers of climate change, and is now trying to interfere shamelessly in the Conservative party leadership race by backing Boris Johnson because he believes it would enable him to gain an ally in Number 10 for his divisive agenda. Donald Trump is just one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat.

Kevin Drum, however, decides not to worry:

Although Khan is right, I don’t really agree with him. That is, Trump has done all that stuff, but I don’t think he’s much of a global threat.

Maybe my glasses are rosier than they should be, but I view Trump as authoritarian in the same way that I view five-year-olds as authoritarian: they yell, they cry, they whine, they demand that everything be about them, but in the end nobody pays them any serious attention. Who cares about a five-year-old’s routine tantrums, after all?

Now, it’s true that Trump can do more damage than a five-year-old, but not that much more.

After all, even his allies and supporters basically agree that he’s a buffoon. The only things they really wanted from him were a tax cut and a bunch of conservative judges, and they got that. Beyond that they mostly just humor him.

So everyone should relax:

If Trump weren’t so ignorant and unaware, he might be a serious danger. In the event, he’s not. It’s possible that his relentless race baiting has done some serious damage, but even there I suspect that his impact is fleeting. If we get rid of Trump in 2020, it will be like waking up from an outlandish dream. Within ten minutes it will all be forgotten and no one will ever again care about anything he says or does.

Fine, but some cannot wait that long:

Congressional Republicans have begun discussing whether they may have to vote to block President Trump’s planned new tariffs on Mexico, potentially igniting a second standoff this year over Trump’s use of executive powers to circumvent Congress, people familiar with the talks said.

The vote, which would be the GOP’s most dramatic act of defiance since Trump took office, could also have the effect of blocking billions of dollars in border wall funding that the president had announced in February when he declared a national emergency at the southern border, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

Aside from the fact that these are Republicans, things are a bit tricky here:

Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on Mexico – with which the United States has a free-trade agreement – rely on the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the border. But the law gives Congress the right to override the national emergency determination by passing a resolution of disapproval.

Congress passed such a resolution in March after Trump reallocated the border wall funds, but he vetoed it. Now, as frustration on Capitol Hill grows over Trump’s latest tariff threat, a second vote could potentially command a veto-proof majority to nullify the national emergency, which in turn could undercut both the border-wall effort and the new tariffs.

In short, it all falls down, but they may have to do this:

Republican lawmakers aren’t eager to be drawn into a conflict with the president. But some feel they might have to take action following a growing consensus within the GOP that these new tariffs would amount to tax increases on American businesses and consumers – something that would represent a profound breach of party orthodoxy.

In short, this time the man asked too much of them. They’d had enough of this sort of thing:

Some White House officials are aware that lawmakers are considering the tactic, but they have not yet decided how to respond. Trump had hoped that threatening to impose tariffs against Mexican imports would lead to major concessions from the Mexican government. But White House officials have not articulated exactly what they want the Mexican government to do, leading to a growing fear among some lawmakers that the White House will push forward with the tariffs when they are scheduled to take effect on June 10.

No one down the street at the White House seems to have thought this through, so they offered their own thinking:

On Monday, lawmakers from both parties, including several top Republicans, warned that Trump was risking the destruction of a pending trade deal with Mexico and Canada by preparing to slap import penalties on Mexican goods.

The lawmakers urged Trump to abandon the planned tariffs. Otherwise, they said, the pending trade deal known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, will probably fail.

“I think this calls into question our ability to pass the USMCA, much less get it passed by Canada and by Mexico,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters Monday.

That was just a little friendly reminder. You guys down the street may have ruined everything, and there was this:

Aside from a resolution of disapproval, other lawmakers have argued that Congress should pass legislation that would claw back tariff authority from the executive branch. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) has introduced a bill that would require congressional approval before a president imposes tariffs under the auspices of national security, and again on Monday made a case for his legislation.

“As a general matter, I think Congress has shifted and delegated way too much power to the executive branch over decades,” Toomey said. “This is not an observation about Donald Trump. That’s a general thing that Congress has done, and now we’re seeing the consequences of that in ways that nobody expected, nobody anticipated and, frankly, I think, many members of Congress don’t agree with.”

Okay, it’s not Trump, exactly, but the tantrums did get to them, finally.

And there’s history too, which Paul Krugman covers here:

Donald Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on Mexican exports unless our neighbor does something – he hasn’t specified what – to stop the flow of asylum-seekers is almost surely illegal: U.S. trade law gives presidents discretion to impose tariffs for a number of reasons, but curbing immigration isn’t one of them.

It’s also a clear violation of U.S. international agreements. And it will reduce the living standards of most Americans, destroy many jobs in U.S. manufacturing, and hurt farmers.

Everyone but Trump knows better:

The actual history of U.S. tariffs isn’t pretty – and not just because tariffs, whatever the tweeter in chief says, are in practice taxes on Americans, not foreigners. In fact, it’s now a good bet that Trump’s tariffs will more than wipe out whatever breaks middle-class Americans got from the 2017 tax cut.

There’s a reason for that:

The more important fact is that until the 1930s, tariff policy was a cesspool of corruption and special-interest politics. One of the main purposes of the 1934 Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, which eventually became the template for the modern world trading system, was to drain that particular swamp by removing the capriciousness of previous tariff policy.

Trump’s erratic trade actions, unconstrained by what we used to think were the legal rules, have brought the capriciousness back, and good old-fashioned corruption ­ if it isn’t happening already – won’t be far behind.

But that’s not the worst of it:

Tariff policy is inextricably linked with America’s role as a global superpower. Central to that role is the expectation that the U.S. will be both reliable and responsible – that it will honor whatever agreements it makes, and more broadly that it will make policy with an eye to the effects of its actions on the rest of the world.

Trump is throwing all that away. His Mexican tariffs violate both NAFTA, which was supposed to guarantee free movement of goods within North America, and our obligations under the World Trade Organization, which, like U.S. law, permits new tariffs only under certain specified conditions. So America has become a lawless actor in world markets, a tariff-policy rogue state.

But wait, there’s more:

By deploying tariffs as a bludgeon against whatever he doesn’t like, Trump is returning America to the kind of irresponsibility it displayed after World War I – irresponsibility that, while obviously not the sole or even the main cause of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the eventual coming of World War II, helped create the environment for these disasters.

It is, I believe, pretty widely known that America turned its back on the world after World War I: refusing to join the League of Nations, slamming the doors shut on most immigration…

What’s less known, I suspect, is that America also took a sharply protectionist turn long before the infamous 1930 Smoot Hawley Act. In early 1921, Congress enacted the Emergency Tariff Act, soon followed by the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922. These actions more than doubled average tariffs on dutiable imports. Like Trump, the advocates of these tariffs claimed that they would bring prosperity to all Americans.

They didn’t.

In fact, this happened:

U.S. tariffs were met with retaliation; even before the Depression struck, the world was engaged in a gradually escalating trade war. Making things even worse, U.S. tariffs put our World War I allies in an impossible position: We expected them to repay their huge war debts, but our tariffs made it impossible for them to earn the dollars they needed to make those payments.

And the trade war/debt nexus created a climate of international distrust and bitterness that contributed to the economic and political crises of the 1930s.

No one needs that again, but Krugman argues things are much worse now:

After all, while Warren Harding wasn’t a very good president, he didn’t routinely abrogate international agreements in a fit of pique. While America in the 1920s failed to help build international institutions, it didn’t do a Trump and actively try to undermine them. And while U.S. leaders between the wars may have turned a blind eye to the rise of racist dictatorships, they generally didn’t praise those dictatorships and compare them favorably to democratic regimes.

But that is what we have now. Kevin Drum says not to worry – no one ever really does what Donald Trump tells them to do – his staff and the rest of the Republicans humor him. Krugman, however, isn’t so sure. It may be time to worry. No one in the world trusts him anymore, or trusts us now. And right now, Donald Trump is stuck in London, missing his Fox News terribly.

He should get out more.

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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