President Trump is not a subtle man. Some would say he’s crude but effective. Others say he’s crude and clueless, and thus dangerous. But he is direct. He was direct in July 2018:
President Trump drew comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 in an attack on the media during a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention Tuesday.
In his address to the convention in Kansas City, Trump defended his decision to slap tariffs on the U.S.’s trading partners. As Trump told the crowd that “it’s all working out,” he warned those in the audience against believing what they see in the news.
“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” Trump said.
For some, the quote immediately recalled a line from Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
And after a flurry of controversy, and sudden and surprising discussion of epistemology, of all things, the nation shrugged and moved on. That man could not define reality as what he said it is, as he sees it. Reality is a solid thing. There it is. He can say the apple is an orange, but it’s still an apple. Americans aren’t that dumb, not yet anyway.
That doesn’t matter. He’ll just keep hammering away at reality:
When the American Cancer Society reported that the United States had experienced the sharpest one-year drop in cancer death rate ever recorded, it quickly caught the attention of President Trump.
“U.S. Cancer Death Rate Lowest In Recorded History!” the president said on Twitter on Thursday, one day after the organization reported the finding. “A lot of good news coming out of this Administration.”
Perhaps so, but this good news wasn’t that good news:
The rush to claim credit for the decline drew a gentle rebuttal from the cancer society, which said, in effect, that the president should not be patting himself on the back just yet.
The society’s latest annual report on cancer statistics, released on Wednesday, noted that the death rate had dropped steadily over 26 years, from 1991 to 2017. The largest single-year decline ever reported, when the rate fell 2.2 percent, occurred from 2016 to 2017. (Mr. Trump took office in January 2017.)
“The mortality trends reflected in our current report, including the largest drop in overall cancer mortality ever recorded from 2016 to 2017, reflect prevention, early detection and treatment advances that occurred in prior years,” Gary M. Reedy, the American Cancer Society’s chief executive, said in a statement.
Note that Reedy was careful not to mention that Obama had been president when these good things were happening. Angering this president is dangerous, and Obama had nothing to do with this either. Doctors and researchers and wonky health policy experts had done this. Obama had simply stayed out of the way, but curiously, Trump had not:
Mr. Trump’s critics pointed out that he had also proposed deep cuts in cancer research funding. In his first budget in 2017, he called for a reduction of $5.8 billion, or 18 percent, from the National Institutes of Health, which fund thousands of researchers working on cancer and other diseases. Congress rejected the cuts and members of both parties joined forces to increase spending on biomedical research.
Congress restored his cuts. Members of both parties defied him. That’s on record. That’s a fact. That’s reality.
And there’s a precedent. George W. Bush just didn’t have a way with words. There were those Bushisms – “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family” – good for a laugh. But no one knew what he was talking about half the time. Maybe he didn’t know. Others spoke for him, and on October 17, 2004, there was that New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind quoting an unnamed aide to George Bush:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The unnamed aide was soon named. Karl Rove was saying this, that reality can be shaped, that it can be manufactured out of nothing much at all, and people will believe it actually is reality. Rove was laughing at those like Suskind who thought they were reporting on reality, thinking it was some sort of thing out there, in and of itself. It isn’t.
That was shocking but that was also conventional. This is what presidents do. Robin Wright, in May 2019, pointed out that the United States has a long history of provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or manufactured threats:
In 1986, the Reagan Administration plotted to use U.S. military maneuvers off Libya’s coast to provoke Muammar Qaddafi into a showdown. The planning for Operation Prairie Fire, which deployed three aircraft carriers and thirty other warships, was months in the making. Before the Navy’s arrival, U.S. warplanes conducted missions skirting Libyan shore and air defenses – “poking them in the ribs” to “keep them on edge,” a U.S. military source told the Los Angeles Times that year. One official involved in the mission explained, “It was provocation, if you want to use that word. While everything we did was perfectly legitimate, we were not going to pass up the opportunity to strike.”
Qaddafi took the bait. Libya fired at least six surface-to-air missiles at U.S. planes. Citing the “aggressive and unlawful nature of Colonel Qaddafi’s regime,” the U.S. responded by opening fire at a Libyan patrol boat. “The ship is dead in the water, burning, and appears to be sinking. There are no official survivors,” the White House reported. In the course of two days, the U.S. destroyed two more naval vessels and a missile site in Sirte, Qaddafi’s home town. It also put Libya on general notice. “We now consider all approaching Libyan forces to have hostile intent,” the White House said.
Reagan created a new reality, a reason for war, but that was oddly ordinary by then:
The beginning of the Vietnam War was authorized by two now disputed incidents involving U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, Congress authorized President Johnson, in 1964, to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” The war dragged on for a decade, claiming the lives of fifty-seven thousand Americans and as many as a million Vietnamese fighters and civilians.
There had been no attacks on American ships in the Tonkin Gulf, but those who had wanted that war got that war, which happens quite often:
In 1898, the Spanish-American War was triggered by an explosion on the U.S.S. Maine, an American battleship docked in Havana Harbor. The Administration of President William McKinley blamed a Spanish mine or torpedo. Almost eight decades later, in 1976, the American admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that the battleship was destroyed by the spontaneous combustion of coal in a bunker next to ammunition.
In 1846, President James Polk justified the Mexican-American War by claiming that Mexico had invaded U.S. territory, at a time when the border was not yet settled. Mexico claimed that the border was the Nueces River; the United States claimed it was the Rio Grande, about a hundred miles away. One of the few voices that challenged Polk’s casus belli was Abraham Lincoln, then serving in Congress. Around fifteen hundred Americans died of battle injuries, and another ten thousand from illness.
Presidents get their wars by creating whole new realities, out of thin air, and less than a year ago Robin Wright saw this:
Today, the question in Washington – and surely in Tehran, too – is whether President Trump is making moves that will provoke, instigate, or inadvertently drag the United States into a war with Iran. Trump’s threats began twelve days after he took office, in 2017, when his national-security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn, declared, in the White House press room, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Flynn, a former three-star general, was fired several weeks later and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. The Administration’s campaign against Iran, though, has steadily escalated…
And now that campaign against Iran has finally bumped up against reality, as the New York Times’ Peter Baker and Thomas Gibbons-Neff explain here:
They had to kill him because he was planning an “imminent” attack. But how imminent they could not say. Where they could not say. When they could not say. And really, it was more about what he had already done. Or actually it was to stop him from hitting an American embassy. Or four embassies. Or not.
For 10 days, President Trump and his team have struggled to describe the reasoning behind the decision to launch a drone strike against Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security forces, propelling the two nations to the brink of war. Officials agree they had intelligence indicating danger, but the public explanations have shifted by the day and sometimes by the hour.
On Sunday came the latest twist. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he was never shown any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as Mr. Trump had claimed just two days earlier.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I share the president’s view that probably – my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
There was no evidence but Trump had a “feeling” that something was up, or that something would happen later, somewhere, at some quite specific time, sooner or later, more or less, which Esper said was good enough. But then there were the questions:
The sharp disparity between the president and his defense secretary only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general and whether there was sufficient justification for an operation that escalated tensions with Iran, aggravated relations with European allies and prompted Iraq to threaten to expel United States forces. General Suleimani was deemed responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in the Iraq war more than a decade ago, but it was not clear whether he had specific plans for a mass-casualty attack in the near future…
While agreeing that General Suleimani was generally a threat, Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, have said the administration has not provided evidence even in classified briefings to back up the claim of an “imminent” attack, nor has it mentioned that four embassies were targeted. Even some Pentagon officials have said privately that they were unaware of any intelligence suggesting that a large-scale attack was in the offing.
But senior government officials with the best access to intelligence have insisted there was ample cause for concern even if it has not been communicated clearly to the public.
Just trust them. But that gets harder every day:
The challenge for the Trump administration is persuading the public, which has been skeptical about intelligence used to justify military action since President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be inaccurate intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Trump himself has made clear in other circumstances that he does not trust the intelligence agencies that he is now citing to justify his decision to eliminate General Suleimani. Moreover, given his long history of falsehoods and distortions, Mr. Trump has his own credibility issues that further cloud the picture. All of which means the administration’s failure to provide a consistent explanation has sown doubts and exposed it to criticism.
“If indeed the strike was taken to disrupt an imminent threat to U.S. persons – and that picture seems to be getting murkier by the minute – the case should be made to Congress and to the public, consistent with national security,” said Lisa Monaco, a former senior FBI official and homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama. “Failure to do so hurts our credibility and deterrence going forward.”
And then there was that one word to consider too:
Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite the administration’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern. A State Department official has privately said it was a mistake for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use the word “imminent” because it suggested a level of specificity that was not borne out by the intelligence.
There is, in fact, nothing specific here:
The administration may well have had intelligence adequate to compel action, but that it was a separate question whether killing General Suleimani was the most effective response, as opposed to hardening targets or choosing a less provocative option.
Claims about an imminent attack that could take “hundreds of American lives,” as Mr. Pompeo put it right after the drone strike, have also generated doubts because no attack in the Middle East over the past two decades, even at the height of the Iraq war, has ever resulted in so many American casualties at once in part because embassies and bases have become so fortified.
And by now it was clear that it was time to explain all this to the public in some way, but that turned out to be dangerous:
The contrast in descriptions of what the administration knew and what it did not came in quick succession on a single Fox News show last week.
On Thursday night, Mr. Pompeo, while sticking by his description of an “imminent” attack, acknowledged that the information was not concrete. “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he told the host, Laura Ingraham.
The next day, in a separate interview, Mr. Trump told Ms. Ingraham that in fact he did know where. “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he said.
That left administration officials like Mr. Esper in an awkward position when they hit the talk show circuit on Sunday. While the defense secretary revealed on CBS that he had not seen intelligence indicating four embassies were targeted, he sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said, seeming to make a distinction between belief and specific intelligence. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.
Which is it? What is real here?
Jonathan Chait has a few things to say about that:
When the administration shared its intelligence with select members of Congress, many of them came away unimpressed, if not outright disgusted. Rep. Gerry Connolly described the presentation as “sophomoric and utterly unconvincing.” Even Republican Senator Mike Lee, heretofore an unquestioning Trump supporter, called it the worst briefing, at least on a military issue, he’s seen in the “nine years he’s been here.” This is the equivalent of a person who owns fourteen house cats reporting that they walked out of the theater halfway through Cats.
Exactly what the administration said, or failed to say, remains classified.
That doesn’t help, nor does this:
Other ancillary details have made the case look more questionable still. Trump reportedly told associates he acted in part to placate Republican Senators whose support he needed to shape the Senate impeachment trial. The Washington Post reports that on the same day as the Soleimani strike, another American mission attempted, but failed, to take out a different Iranian commander in Yemen, where Iran is involved in a civil war.
This seems like a strange coincidence if the second target was also linked to an imminent threat to the U.S. “This suggests a mission with a longer planning horizon and a larger objective, and it really does call into question why there was an attempt to explain this publicly on the basis of an imminent threat,” Iran scholar Suzanne Maloney told the Post.
But we had to take him out. Maybe there was no “smoking gun” – no verified imminent threat at all – but we had to take him out because we couldn’t wait. The “smoking gun” could be a mushroom cloud.
No, wait, wrong war, but this sort of thing never lets up, as NBC’s Allan Smith reports here:
Impeachment wasn’t all that was on President Donald Trump’s mind in the hours after the House voted to approve the charges against him.
He was also thinking about toilets.
Speaking at a campaign rally that night in Battle Creek, Michigan, Trump delivered a lengthy rant about a bevy of regulations governing bathroom and kitchen appliances.
“Sinks, right? Showers, and what goes with a sink and a shower?”
“Toilets!” the crowd chanted back.
“Ten times, right, 10 times,” Trump continued, referring to the number of flushes he claimed were sometimes required because of water-saving federal regulations. “Not me, of course not me. But you,” he added while pointing to a random audience member.
We want to fight about this? Of course he does:
For the better part of two decades, libertarian-minded conservatives have taken aim at the regulations and energy standards Trump now decries – and they’re overjoyed to see him use the power of the presidency to shine a light into America’s bathrooms and kitchens.
“I’ve never flushed a toilet 10 times,” said Daniel Savickas, the regulatory policy director for the libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks. “But I think what he’s getting at is the heart of the issue. People do have to run their appliances multiple times because of water efficiency standards. I don’t think people are flushing their toilets 10 times, but they’re definitely reusing dishwashers, flushing multiple times, at least. And that has drawbacks across the economy.”
What? This is nonsense, as much nonsense as Trump curing cancer last weekend, in his spare time:
Leading environmentalists don’t see it quite the same way. They point to the positive impact of the regulatory policy, primarily improved water conservation and lower bills for consumers. And the products are just as good as their less efficient predecessors, they said.
“I don’t know what product they’re using but I don’t have to run it two or three times,” former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George W. Bush, told NBC News. “My dishwashers do just fine, thank you. I do it once. My dishes are clean and everybody’s healthy. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Yes, but she’s still doing the reality-based-community thing when now there’s a new reality around every corner:
Conservative groups such as FreedomWorks, through its “Make Dishwashers Great Again” campaign, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have been influential in getting the Department of Energy to consider creating a new class of dishwashers with shorter wash cycles to get around existing standards.
Sam Kazman, the general counsel at CEI, said Trump’s “sentiment” is right on, even if some of his specific claims were “overblown.”
Make Dishwashers Great Again? Someone left reality far behind:
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said killing the regulations governing household appliances will lead to more wasted water and energy, increased pollution and will reward companies that refuse to innovate.
“There are so many more important things that we should be talking about in our country, honestly,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that this is even a topic of debate.”
Well, yes, but Michael Brune misses the point. This is a war on reality and even the minor skirmishes about nonsense matter quite a bit. Reality is finally losing here and there, and these things add up.