A Cosmic Roll of the Dice

Americans are optimistic can-do folks. Things will always work out, one way or another. Only fools panic. Americans are pragmatic. There’s a solution out there to every problem. Wait. Cooler heads will prevail.

Americans may have to give up their optimism now. No-Drama Obama – the coolest of cool heads – perhaps too unemotional and passive from some – is long gone. Americans elected a hothead this time. Cooler heads won’t prevail. That was obvious on the Thursday of the week America headed for war. The New York Times’ Peter Baker tells the tale:

President Trump escalated his war of words with North Korea on Thursday by declaring that his provocative threat to rain down “fire and fury” might not have been harsh enough, as nuclear tensions between the two nations continued to crackle.

Rejecting critics at home and abroad who condemned his earlier warning as reckless saber-rattling, Mr. Trump said North Korea and its volatile leader, Kim Jong-un, have pushed the United States and the rest of the world for too long.

“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” he told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”

There will be little or no waiting now:

Mr. Trump noted that North Korea, which has made significant progress toward developing long-range nuclear weapons, responded to his original warning by threatening to launch a missile strike toward the Pacific island of Guam, an American territory and strategic base. “If he does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before, what will happen in North Korea,” he said.

Asked if that was a dare, Mr. Trump said: “It’s not a dare. It’s a statement. Has nothing to do with dare. That’s a statement. He’s not going to go around threatening Guam and he’s not going to threaten the United States and he’s not going to threaten Japan, and he’s not going to threaten South Korea. No, that’s not a dare, as you say. That is a statement of fact.”

It’s not a dare. It’s a statement. That’s grade-school playground talk, but Donald Trump was on a roll:

He assailed Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, for not passing his legislative priorities, calling it “disgraceful” that the party’s health care plan failed by one vote and hinting that the leader should step down if he cannot do better. Mr. Trump also said he would declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency and defended his decision to bar transgender people from the armed forces, saying he was “doing the military a great favor.”

He was swaggering:

In his first response to Russia’s decision to force the United States to slash its diplomatic staff in half, the president said he would thank President Vladimir V. Putin for helping him trim payroll costs. Mr. Trump expressed sympathy for his former campaign chairman, Paul J. Manafort, whose house was raided last month by law enforcement agents as part of an investigation into Russia ties, calling him “a very decent man.” He said he was not considering firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel.

After nearly a week of his working vacation here, the president was in an expansive mood and seemingly eager to talk and take on all issues.

There’s a lot there, but it came down to him saying that everyone else, including those damned congressional Republicans, was a fool. He wasn’t – but that sanctions comment was curious. He had ripped into Congress for passing that bill that imposed new sanctions on Russia, almost unanimously in both the House and Senate, so they could override any veto. He had to sign it, and it stipulated, by law, that he could not end those sanctions without their permission. That made him angry, so he lauded Vladimir Putin for imposing sanctions on the United States.

What? Michael McFaul, the former Ambassador to Russia under President Obama, tore into him:

Our diplomats, professional staff, and military serving in Russia provide Washington with invaluable information about Russia. Imagine wanting to know less about Russia’s military modernization! That’s what Trump praised today.

Imagine wanting to know less about Russian foreign policy intentions and plans! That’s what embassy personnel reductions will do.

Imagine wanting to have less capability to gather data about dangerous transnational diseases originating in Russia! Trump seems to want that.

Imagine dissing Americans – patriots serving our country under difficult conditions in Russia – to praise Putin. Our president did today.

McFaul is under the impression that Trump might care about these things. He doesn’t. He was just swaggering, and that stuff is now a minor matter:

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea has reached a level that has alarmed allies in Asia and many Americans at home. Investors were unnerved on Thursday by the increasing tension. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell by 1.45 percent as investors sold out of highflying stocks such as Amazon, Facebook and Netflix. It was the sharpest daily decline in the benchmark S&P 500 since May 17.

Democrats complained that the president was inflaming the confrontation and called for diplomacy instead. “President Trump’s escalatory rhetoric is exactly the wrong response to dealing with North Korea’s provocative behavior,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia Subcommittee. “It unnecessarily heightens the risk of miscalculation and creates the very fog that can lead to war.”

More than 60 House Democrats sent a letter on Thursday to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson asking him to restrain the president. “These statements are irresponsible and dangerous, and also senselessly provide a boon to domestic North Korean propaganda, which has long sought to portray the United States as a threat to their people,” the letter said.

Trump just smiled. Let them write their letter to Tillerson. No one is going to restrain this president:

He was vague about exactly where the line would be if North Korea did not back down, and refused to say whether he would consider a pre-emptive military strike without an attack by Pyongyang.

Asked what would be “tougher” than “fire and fury,” he demurred. “Well, you’ll see, you’ll see.”

He’s in charge. No one else is. Everyone will just have to wait, and there was this:

A White House aide, meanwhile, said no one should listen to Mr. Tillerson on military matters related to North Korea after the secretary of state said he saw no imminent likelihood of war and urged Americans to sleep soundly.

“The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, told BBC Radio. “It is the job of Secretary Mattis, the secretary of defense, to talk about the military options.”

That drew a sharp retort from Mr. Tillerson’s spokeswoman. “He’s a cabinet secretary,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. “He’s fourth in line to the presidency. He carries a big stick.”

No, he doesn’t. There’s only one big stick, and he does what he feels like doing, even if others say it makes no sense, or because others say it makes no sense. He seems to like to piss people off. It amuses him, but sense might matter here. Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, points out the danger now:

It’s clear that the military option comes with significant risk. A U.S. preemptive strike, namely a targeted nuclear attack to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons, would invite all-out retaliation by North Korea against South Korea, Japan, and U.S. troops in the region. With the massive conventional artilleries deployed near the Korean Demilitarized Zone, North Korea would inflict major casualties on the South.

If the U.S. resorts to a preemptive strike on North Korea without consultation and agreement from Seoul, the costs to South Korea would have a critically damaging effect over the U.S.-South Korea alliance, even possibly lead to its dissolution. Considering President Moon Jae-in’s interest in engagement with North Korea, it would be highly unlikely for South Korea to support a U.S. decision to launch a targeted nuclear attack on the North.

A U.S. preemptive strike on North Korea would also likely invite Chinese intervention. The Sino-North Korea Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance Treaty commits China to North Korea’s defense in the event of foreign aggression. Although the validity of the 56-year old treaty is constantly debated, few doubt that China would intervene to defend its perceived national interests in the Korean Peninsula, including the preservation of a North Korean state and the prevention of a South Korea-led unification. It would put U.S. and China directly on a collision course and could lead to another Korean War.

David Ignatius says it’s worse than that:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has defiance in his blood. It’s said his grandfather once asked what would happen if the United States defeated North Korea in war, to which his father answered: “If we lose, I will be sure to destroy the Earth. What good is the Earth without North Korea?”

President Trump has decided to confront what’s probably the most reckless, risk-taking regime on the planet. His hope for a diplomatic solution depends on convincing North Korea and China that he’s ready for the “fire and fury” of nuclear war should negotiations fail. If Hollywood were pitching the story, it would be “The Art of the Deal” meets “Dr. Strangelove.”

Cooler heads should prevail:

Despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric this week, the path ahead is really about finesse: Both the military and diplomatic paths require close cooperation with regional partners. The United States can’t go it alone in Korea, in either war or peace. The danger is that Trump’s rhetoric could destabilize partners more than adversaries.

Robert Work, a deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration who stayed on and just left the Pentagon, explains: “A preemptive war to protect our homeland from future attack is an option, but the major risks would be borne by South Korea and Japan, which face the threat of missile attacks today.”

But wait, there’s more:

Significant civilian casualties would be inescapable if war comes. North Korea has thousands of artillery tubes just across the Demilitarized Zone. If attacked or threatened with decapitation, the regime could launch a barrage. The Pentagon estimates that on the first day, North Korea could fire up to 100,000 rocket and artillery rounds.

To protect the estimated 300,000 American civilians in Seoul from this artillery inferno, the Pentagon plans to stage “noncombatant evacuation operations.” Organizing planes and ships for so many people would be a nightmare, as would the chaos among those left behind. Analysts estimate that an additional one million non-Koreans may live in the country, including many Chinese. How would they get out? China might help in an evacuation, but at what political price?

The United States could try a lightning strike to preempt a North Korean attack, perhaps using cyber and other exotic weapons. But the Pentagon cautions policymakers that there isn’t a way to guarantee that North Korea couldn’t launch a nuclear missile in response to such an attack. It would be a cosmic roll of the dice.

It’s all a cosmic roll of the dice, but Fareed Zakaria notes that Trump has been making ominous threats his whole life:

The United States is not going to launch a preventive nuclear war in Asia. Trump’s comments have undoubtedly rattled Washington’s closest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. Empty threats and loose rhetoric only cheapen American prestige and power, boxing in the administration.

So why do it? Because it’s Trump’s basic mode of action. For his entire life, Trump has made grandiose promises and ominous threats – and rarely delivered on any. When he was in business, Reuters found, he frequently threatened to sue news organizations for libel, but the last time he followed through was 33 years ago, in 1984. Trump says that he never settles cases out of court. In fact, he has settled at least 100 times, according to USA Today.

He’s no different now:

In his political life, he has followed the same strategy of bluster. In 2011, he said that he had investigators who “cannot believe what they’re finding” about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and that he would at some point “be revealing some interesting things.” He had nothing. During the campaign, he vowed that he would label China a currency manipulator, move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, make Mexico pay for a border wall and initiate an investigation into Hillary Clinton. So far, nada. After being elected, he signaled to China that he might recognize Taiwan. Within weeks of taking office, he folded. He implied that he had tapes of his conversations with then-FBI Director James B. Comey. Of course, he had none.

Even now, as he deals with a nuclear crisis, Trump has made claims that could be easily shown to be false. He tweeted that his first presidential order was to “modernize” the United States’ nuclear arsenal. In fact, he simply followed a congressional mandate to authorize a review of the arsenal, which hasn’t been completed yet. Does he think the North Koreans don’t know this?

Kevin Drum does wonder about that simple review of the arsenal:

Let’s consider the possibilities:

Trump knew it was false, but he said it anyway. He lied.

Trump literally doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He continues to consider his lies to be “truthful hyperbole,” the term he applied to generalized puffery during his real estate career.

Trump is delusional. He thinks that ordering a review magically makes things happen.

Trump is surrounded by sycophants who have assured him that the US nuclear arsenal is stronger than it was six months ago. He believes them.

Trump is losing control of his faculties. He vaguely remembers some kind of nuclear order and figures it must mean that our nukes have gotten better.

None of that is good:

There’s literally nothing that’s actually happened to our nuclear arsenal since January that he could have misunderstood as modernization. So that’s not an option. He was either lying or else the explanation is something worse.

Personally, I think it’s some of both. He was lying, but he’s also starting to lose control of his faculties. Not a lot, maybe, but enough to make him kinda sorta believe his own lies. This is not good. This is something to take seriously.

He’s either lying, or else his mind is declining. We’d best figure out soon which it is.

Dan Lamothe points out that it may be too late for that:

The dueling threats issued by President Trump and the North Korean military have prompted questions about U.S. procedures to launch a preemptive nuclear attack. The answer is stark: If the president wants to strike, his senior military advisers have few options but to carry it out or resign.

The rules are the rules:

A December 2016 assessment by the Congressional Research Service stated that the president “does not need the concurrence of either his military advisors or the U.S. Congress to order the launch of nuclear weapons.” Additionally, the assessment said, “neither the military nor Congress can overrule these orders.”

The reason is simple: The system is set up for the United States to launch an attack within minutes, so that if the United States is under a nuclear attack, it can respond almost instantly, said Bruce Blair, a former nuclear watch officer. Trump would presumably meet with Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser, before launching a preemptive attack, but it would “really be uncharted territory” if they sought to stall or slow down an order from the president, Blair said.

Under the existing War Powers Act of 1973, the president also is not required to seek congressional approval for any military action until 60 days after the start of a war. Two lawmakers, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), sought to stop the president from launching a first-strike nuclear attack until Congress declares war, but the effort hasn’t gone anywhere and is unlikely to with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress.

This is a problem:

Steven F. Hayward, a conservative policy scholar, said that if Trump’s senior military advisers stood united against carrying out a preemptive nuclear strike, the “real remedy would be resignation.” Hypothetically, doing so might trigger impeachment proceedings, Hayward said, but it isn’t clear whether it would be quick enough to stop the president from launching an attack.

“It could happen,” Hayward said. “It would be pretty dramatic and it would be very unclear what would happen, but it could happen. We’re really in uncharted waters here.”

But there’s a reason the president gets to roll the cosmic dice:

Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale University, said that the principle of civilian control of the military also looms large – “even when the civilian in control is as unpredictable and belligerent as President Trump.” Latin American nations have modeled their constitutions along American lines, and their experiences suggest that terrible consequences follow when generals defy their presidents, even under compelling circumstances.

“Worse yet, once the principle is violated, it becomes a precedent for future generals to take the law into their own hands,” Ackerman said. “We cannot allow this dynamic to take hold here. If Trump’s team can’t convince him, they should obey the orders of their commander in chief.”

What’s that classic line in all those teenage goofball movies? We’re screwed? That seems to be the case here, and the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher and David Nakamura add the necessary detail:

A military confrontation with North Korea may now be “inevitable,” says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) The United States is “done talking” about North Korea, tweets U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. President Trump threatens “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” then says maybe his language “wasn’t tough enough.”

The North Koreans return verbal fire, talking of using “absolute force” to hit the U.S. territory of Guam and even “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war.”

In this moment of heated, belligerent rhetoric, planners in and out of government are diving into decades of plans and projections, playing out war games, engaging in the macabre semi-science of estimating death tolls and predicting how an adversary might behave.

It is macabre:

In hundreds of books, policy papers and roundtable discussions, experts have couched various shades of Armageddon in the dry, emotion-stripped language of throw-weights and missile ranges. But the nightmare scenarios are simple enough: In a launch from North Korea, a nuclear-tipped missile could reach San Francisco in half an hour. A nuclear attack on Seoul – South Korea’s capital of 10 million people – could start and finish in three minutes.

Well, now we must think about such things:

At this volatile intersection, alternatives to war are at least as much the focus as preparation for battle. Luring the North Koreans to the negotiating table is perhaps the most popular pathway among many experts, who advocate a “freeze-for-freeze” option, in which the United States might promise to restrict military exercises in the region or eschew new sanctions against Kim’s regime, in exchange for North Korea agreeing to halt expansion and testing of its nuclear capabilities.

Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, for example, has suggested promising not to seek regime change in North Korea in exchange for Kim committing to a cap on his nuclear program.

However, Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the Trump administration rejects the idea of freeze-for-freeze, calling it a false moral equivalency.

We’re screwed, but there are other voices:

Accepting North Korea into the world’s nuclear club is a hard step for many politicians, but maybe not quite as hard as it once was. Now, it’s not so much a step as an acceptance of the status quo.

“I don’t think we’re going to get denuclearization,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at Columbia University who was a sanctions coordinator in President Barack Obama’s State Department. “So we might want to accept them and depend on deterrence theory. There’s a reason North Korea has not invaded South Korea: They fear overwhelming response from the United States.”

But if North Korea won’t negotiate, or if the Trump administration decides against making concessions that might lure the Kim regime to the table, a military confrontation remains “a very plausible path,” Nephew said. “It’s a very tempting idea to solve this problem once and for all.”

The Trump administration suddenly deciding to make concessions is a long shot of course, so there’s only this:

Most of those who have considered the merits of launching a limited attack on the North – say, to destroy nuclear capabilities – have concluded that what Americans might see as limited could well be interpreted by the Kim regime as an invitation to all-out conflict.

North Korea might even respond with force to the ongoing U.S. show of strength in its neighborhood. American ships, planes and troops have been on maneuvers nearby as part of annual exercises, and the United States sent B-1 bombers stationed in Guam over the Korean Peninsula last month.

The North could also launch its own provocation – an attack on Guam, a cyberattack on Japan or a skirmish on the boundary between the two Koreas, the planet’s most heavily armed border.

That’s what we face:

In a conventional war, heavy casualties would likely result as North Korean troops poured into the South, using tunnels the North is reported to have built under the demilitarized zone between the countries. In addition, North Korea is believed to have a stockpile of several thousand tons of chemical weapons, according to the International Crisis Group, which studies global conflicts.

In war games played out at Washington policy institutes, even minor confrontations have led to a nuclear exchange. In one model, a single nuclear device deployed against Seoul would result in 180,000 deaths and 160,000 additional injuries, along with a near-total collapse of civil order, including a mass exodus from the city leading to gridlock and a paralyzed health-care system.

Even without using nuclear weapons, the North could sow panic and perhaps force a shift in U.S. policy. North Korea might attempt to spread fear through an act of terrorism, said Patrick Cronin, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Center for a New American Security. “A few grenades in downtown Seoul will absolutely close down the city out of fear,” he said.

Even without nuclear force, North Korea might seek to divide the United States from its allies. How, for example, would regional Asian powers react if North Korea shot a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse over Tokyo, temporarily turning off the lights in the Japanese metropolis?

In that instance, some experts concluded, Japan might join with some neighbors to urge Washington to cut a deal with Kim, averting further military conflict by accepting North Korea as a nuclear power.

And there’s that wild card:

Many scenarios exploring how a U.S.-North Korea conflict would unfold founder on uncertainties about what Kim really wants. Despite the country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, “the regime does not have regional ambitions,” concluded Robert Carlin of Stanford University and Robert Jervis of Columbia in a paper that studied how North Korea might use its new status.

“The most likely scenario,” they wrote, “is for Pyongyang to remain tightly focused on its domestic situation, especially on its economy, and on ways to loosen or blunt the pressures from its neighbors and the United States.”

Still, they said, “we could well enter the danger zone of North Korean fatalism, in which a decision to use nuclear weapons, especially against Japan – the historic enemy – would rise on the list of ‘patriotic’ options.”

The North Korean leadership, they warned, “might become fatalistic and decide that death with ‘glory’ is preferable to defeat.”

That’s okay. Donald Trump seems to feel the same way, and that’s how the age of American optimism ends. Americans are pragmatic. There’s a solution out there to every problem. Wait. Cooler heads will prevail – but we don’t have any of those anymore – not in the government we just elected. He’ll roll those dice. The rest of us will duck and cover.

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Little Men

Baby boomers have their memories. Outside the window here, across the hills, there’s the Griffith Observatory in the distance. That’s where the iconic 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause starts, with a knife fight, and ends, with a shootout. James Dean was the rebel, playing a troubled teenager starting his first day in a new high school, again. There’s a class field trip to the observatory. Somehow James Dean gets in a fight, again. Why? A gang of “delinquents” led by “Buzz” Gunderson (Corey Allen) calls him “chicken” – and that’s enough. Buzz and our hero both pull knives, but a guard busts up the fight. Buzz then suggests stealing a couple of cars for a “Chicken Run” at a local cliff. Drive fast toward the edge – whoever jumps out first is “chicken” – and that doesn’t go well. Our hero actually jumps out of his car first. Buzz gets his sleeve caught on the door handle. He can’t jump out. He goes over the cliff and dies. Then everything really goes wrong. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

A few years later, in 1962, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis – Kennedy and Khrushchev playing chicken about those Soviet missiles in Cuba. They had to go. That was a game of chicken too.

Who would blink first? We’d seen this movie before, but this wasn’t two stolen cars and a cliff – this was possible global thermonuclear war. It was the ultimate game of chicken – and then it wasn’t. It ended with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles from Cuba, matched by the withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy, and an agreement with the Soviet Union that the United States would never invade Cuba, without direct provocation, and the creation of a nuclear hotline between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides blinked. No one drove over a cliff. There’s a lesson there too.

Michael Dobbs wrote about this in One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War and now, with Trump and Kim Jong Un playing chicken, he sees the parallel:

The real risk of war arose not from the conscious designs of Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev or even Fidel Castro. It stemmed from the possibility that the opposing sides could trigger a nuclear conflict that nobody wanted through miscommunication and freak accidents, which became increasingly likely at higher levels of military alert. The same is almost certainly true of the present crisis with North Korea…

For a student of the Cuban missile crisis, the fact that our current Twitter-happy commander in chief is surrounded by sensible, highly competent generals is only partly reassuring.

So here we go again:

Given the explosive rhetoric of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un it is understandable that President Trump should be tempted to respond in kind. Classic game theory teaches us that you can gain an advantage over your opponent if you can convince him that you are madder than he is. In the game of chicken, with two cars heading for a frontal collision, the driver who swerves out of the way first loses.

Okay, there’s no cliff in that version of chicken, but there’s this:

During the Cuban missile crisis, the “crazy man” role was played to perfection by Castro, the only leading actor who was seriously prepared to risk a nuclear war. Patria o muerte – “fatherland or death” – was, after all, the slogan of the Cuban revolution. Assuming the role of madman has always been part of the arsenal of the weak against the strong, whether in the case of Cuba or North Korea or the Islamic State. It gives the weaker player an advantage it would not otherwise have.

Playing chicken is, however, a dangerous indulgence for the leader of a nuclear superpower. During the 1962 crisis, the two “rational” players – Kennedy and Khrushchev – ended up making common cause against the “madman” Castro. Despite everything that divided them, they had a sneaking sympathy for each other, an idea expressed most poignantly by Jackie Kennedy in a handwritten letter to the Soviet leader following her husband’s assassination.

“You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up,” she wrote Khrushchev. “The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.”

She probably didn’t like that James Dean movie either – teenage boys pretending to be big men – but wars are started by little men, and we are dealing with a little man:

President Trump’s aides knew he planned to deliver a tough message to North Korea on Tuesday, but they did not expect a threat that rivaled the apocalyptic taunts often used by his target, Kim Jong-un.

The president’s language – which aides say he had used in private – escalated the long-running dispute with North Korea to a new level and left members of the Trump administration scrambling on Wednesday to explain what he meant.

But the process, or lack of one, that led to the ad-libbed comments embodied Mr. Trump’s overall approach to foreign policy, an improvisational style that often leaves his national security team in the dark about what he is going to say or do, according to several people with direct knowledge of how the episode unfolded.

It seems this was no more than a little man in a bad mood:

The president was in a confrontational mood on Tuesday afternoon after The Washington Post reported that Pyongyang had developed nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on ballistic missiles. His team assumed that he would be asked about North Korea during a scheduled media appearance tied to a meeting the president was planning to hold at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., about the opioid epidemic.

But during a conference call beforehand that focused on North Korea, Mr. Trump did not offer a preview of what he planned to say – and aides did not press the president, who resists being told what to say, even on a tinderbox issue that has induced his predecessors to seek the safety of a script.

They knew better than to try to calm a little man in a bad mood, so this happened:

Mr. Trump’s aides braced as he began to speak at the opioid event – his arms folded, jaw set and eyes flitting on what appeared to be a single page of talking points set before him on the conference table where he was sitting. The piece of paper, as it turned out, was a fact sheet on the opioid crisis.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters in remarks aired on television and broadcast around the globe. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

No one expected that, so there was the usual damage control:

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Trump’s national security team was “well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery.”

“The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand,” she said. The words he used, she added, “were his own.”

And they revealed what some longtime associates of Mr. Trump say is a simmering frustration with the velvet handcuffs slapped on him by John F. Kelly, his new White House chief of staff, who has cracked down on walk-in visitors to the Oval Office and keeps tabs on some of the president’s after-hours phone calls to ensure that he is not being fed bad information or reckless advice.

Mr. Trump has embraced the new, more disciplined approach of the former Marine general, but he has made it clear that he will not cede control of what he says or tweets to anybody. If nothing else, Tuesday’s statement proved that he cannot be muzzled by his staff or decorous diplomatic protocol.

He will remain an angry little man, and Jonathan Chait says that this forced the United States into the unenviable position of either instigating a massive war with horrific casualties or surrendering its credibility:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have issued more normal-sounding statements intended to supersede the president’s improvised one. (Mattis’ statement redraws the red line, threatening reprisal in return for North Korean actions, rather than threats.) The message of this cleanup is that Trump’s statements do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. government – a reality that most American political elites in both parties already recognize, but which needs to be made clear to other countries that are unaccustomed to treating their head of state like a random Twitter troll.

We do have a little man in charge:

It is humiliating for the world’s greatest superpower to disregard its president as a weird old man who wanders in front of microphones spouting off unpredictably and without consequence. But at this point, respect for Trump’s capabilities is a horse that’s already fled the barn. New chief of staff John Kelly has supposedly instilled military-style order and message discipline into the administration, but Trump is unteachable. Minimizing the havoc means getting everybody to pretend Trump isn’t really president.

Rich Lowry is a bit more specific about this:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson popped up to reassure everyone that no, the missiles weren’t about to fly and smooth everything over with a generous helping of diplo-speak.

Tillerson supported what Trump said, but at times took a tone of polite distance from the president for whom he works. “I think,” the secretary of state said, “Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.”

This particular rhetoric? It was his boss and the president of the United States speaking.

Tillerson seemed to leave a little opening for the possibility that he didn’t know what was happening within the government he serves, over a foreign crisis that should be directly in his purview: “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued his own, much tougher statement. So the administration has something for everyone. You can choose the president’s bellicosity, the secretary of defense’s firmness, or the secretary of state’s palaver. Which reflects the administration’s true posture? Who knows? Does the Trump administration?

No one knows:

One theory is that Trump and Tillerson are deliberately playing different roles. But there’s good cop-bad cop, and then there’s Keystone Kops. Some unpredictability at the top can be welcome, so long as it’s calculated unpredictability, not random popping off that catches a president’s own foreign-policy team off-guard.

The middle ground, between Trump’s saber-rattling and Tillerson’s diplomatic pleading, would be a comprehensive policy toward the goal of regime change. As former Bush administration official Robert Joseph argues, such a strategy would involve cutting off the North from the international financial system, interdicting its weapons trafficking, undertaking an intense information campaign publicizing its human-rights abuses, and perhaps shooting down its test missiles or instituting a blockade.

Such an approach would have its own risks – it wouldn’t be guaranteed to collapse the regime or to avoid military conflict. But at least it would be a strategy. If the Trump administration wants to really send a signal to Kim Jong Un, it should get itself together and pick one.

It seems that Donald Trump is a rebel without any cause at all, just like James Dean, sort of, maybe.

But this is a game of chicken:

North Korea said Thursday that it was drawing up plans to launch four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into waters near Guam in the Western Pacific to teach President Trump a lesson, a day after the president warned of “fire and fury” against the North if it persisted in threatening the United States.

If the North were to follow through on its threat to launch an “enveloping strike” in the vicinity of Guam, it would be the first time that a North Korean missile landed so close to an American territory. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that, according to the plan, four of the country’s Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles would fly over the three southern Japanese prefectures of Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi before hitting the ocean about 19 to 25 miles from the coast of Guam…

North Korea will fine tune its launching plans by the middle of this month and wait for a final order from its leader, Kim Jong-un, the North’s official news agency said, citing Gen. Kim Rak-gyom, commander of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army.

And as with Buzz at the observatory, there were taunts:

“Sound dialogue” is not possible with someone “bereft of reason, and only absolute force can work on him,” General Kim said, accusing Mr. Trump of having spoken “a load of nonsense.” He said Mr. Trump, who he said was spending his time on the “golf links,” was failing to “grasp the ongoing grave situation.”

That’s bound to enrage Trump, but the odd thing is that General Kim is only saying what others say:

Even before the latest escalation of nuclear threats between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, senior diplomats and officials from the US’s European allies have been warning that the US president’s approach to world affairs is extremely dangerous – pointing to his apparent ignorance of other countries’ history, his unfiltered use of social media, and the lack of a strong, experienced team around him.

In interviews with BuzzFeed News, six top European government officials who’ve had firsthand dealings on the international stage with Trump and his administration describe a president regarded even by allies as erratic and limited, and whose perceived shortcomings are compounded by the ongoing chaos beneath him in the White House.

They agree with General Kim:

On one level, the officials said, he is something of a laughing stock among Europeans at international gatherings. One revealed that a small group of diplomats play a version of word bingo whenever the president speaks because they consider his vocabulary to be so limited. “Everything is ‘great’, ‘very, very great’, ‘amazing’,” the diplomat said.

But behind the mocking, there is growing fear among international governments that Trump is a serious threat to international peace and stability.

“He has no historical view. He is only dealing with these issues now, and seems to think the world started when he took office,” a diplomat told BuzzFeed News, pointing to Trump’s remarks and tweets about defense spending. “He thinks that NATO existed only to keep the communists out of Europe. He has a similar attitude in Asia-Pacific with Japan, ignoring that the US basically wrote their constitution.” During his presidential campaign, Trump called out Japan to pay more for the security US provides, including for hosting the US troops in the country. Japan’s constitution restricts its military options.

They also believe Trump’s foreign policy is chiefly driven by an obsession with unravelling Barack Obama’s policies. “It’s his only real position,” one European diplomat said. “He will ask: ‘Did Obama approve this?’ And if the answer is affirmative, he will say: ‘We don’t.’ He won’t even want to listen to the arguments or have a debate. He is obsessed with Obama.”

They know a little man when they see one:

The officials revealed that at international meetings, Trump has openly mocked his own aides, contradicting and arguing with them in front of other leaders. That has compounded the impression of an administration in chaos. “We can hear everything, it’s weird,” one diplomat said.

Officials also expressed concerns over the status of the State Department, and the lack of seasoned diplomats and experts within the White House. One diplomat suggested that US counterparts have privately lamented to Europeans about the number of roles in the administration that have yet to be filled resulting in a lack of clear positions on many policy areas.

“The White House lacks crucial expertise,” one said. “The State Department and others are isolated. You have the generals, the National Security Council, and then a void. There aren’t enough diplomats, experts etc. in the White House. Tillerson has a small team. Does Trump listen to Mattis, to McMaster, to the experts?”

The question answers itself.

But there’s another way to look at this, and Josh Marshall offers this:

In almost every discussion of the North Korea situation, I try to remind everyone that North Korea made its nuclear break out under George W. Bush – not under Bill Clinton and not under Barack Obama. A key part of that backstory is that over the course of the late 90s the US negotiated a series of agreements called the Agreed Framework which shuttered the North Koreans nuclear weapons program in exchange for a combination of commitments and aid. The Bush team argued that the agreement was ‘appeasement’ and that the US had caught the North Koreans cheating on the agreement during Bush’s first term.

Marshall says that may seem irrelevant now, but it isn’t:

The argument that the North Koreans were cheating on the Agreed Framework is questionable. The path the US was concerned about and which the Agreed Framework dealt with was a plutonium path to nuclear weapons. The cheating was allegedly about a uranium path. The North Koreans argued that the US hadn’t fulfilled key elements of the deal (with some reason). They denied cheating. Whether they were or not, I’m not really clear on. I’m not sure more informed people really know for certain either. What is clear though is that the Bush administration didn’t like the Agreed Framework and were looking for a reason to get out of it. The cheating allegation – which definitely may have been true – turned out to be that reason.

But the real reason wasn’t the cheating. It was the pretext. The Bush team didn’t like the concept of the deal itself. Giving things to the North Koreans to get them to do things we wanted was rewarding misbehavior, ‘appeasement’. The proper way to handle such a situation was to get them to fall in line by the threat of US power, which is to say US military power. This isn’t a crazy viewpoint. The North Koreans have used menacing or destabilizing actions to extract aid from great powers. In principle you should avoid rewarding ‘bad behavior’. Indeed, it was an unlovely arrangement. But even if there was some cheating in the background, the agreement demonstrably shuttered or at least stymied North Korea’s weapons development for years.

That agreement worked, but it wouldn’t do, and that should sound familiar:

The simple reality was that the Bush team didn’t like the deal but had nothing to replace it with. The threat of force wasn’t credible because of the costs of a military confrontation which the North Koreans were well aware of. So the US got to act tough (or rather feel tough) and not go in for ‘appeasement’ – and the result was that North Korea became a nuclear power. Might they have become a nuclear power anyway? Maybe, but it seems very hard to argue that they would have gotten there as quickly as they did or would even be there today if the US had continued with the quite minor amounts of aid the Agreed Framework required…

The real lesson I draw from this is that we should be extremely wary about actions which have the feeling or appearance of toughness but which are likely to have negative or even dire results because we have no viable, alternative policy. That seems very much like the situation we are moving toward with North Korea. Certainly it’s what President Trump was doing yesterday when he made wild threats he is highly, highly unlikely to follow through on. (Is President Trump really going to launch an all-out nuclear attack on North Korea with all the horror, death and destruction in both Koreas, nuclear fallout in nearby states in retaliation for more verbal threats? Please.)

And it’s not just North Korea:

No less important, I’m quite certain that it is almost exactly the situation and folly that President Trump and his nuttier advisors are moving toward with Iran. We allowed Iran to do this. We gave them this money. For all this, in the future they could go ahead and build a bomb anyway. We haven’t actually ‘solved’ the threat, just postponed it. There are good rejoinders to each of these arguments. But there are merits to them too.

But what’s the alternative? I would argue that in practice we have no real military alternative which is better than what we have now. And yet, we look likely to repeat the same mistake: taking the ego boost of feeling tough at the price of accepting negative or perhaps catastrophic results.

There is that ego boost of feeling tough at the price of accepting negative or perhaps catastrophic results – like Buzz going over the cliff in that old James Dean movie. Donald Trump isn’t that rebel without any cause at all, just like James Dean in that movie. He’s more like Buzz in that stolen car, with his sleeve caught on the door handle, unable to jump out now – a little man pretending to be a big man, about to die. We’re just along for the ride. How did that happen?

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Geopolitical Theology

It was a day for geopolitical theology:

Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers who preached the morning of his inauguration, has released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary – including war – to stop evil,” Jeffress said. “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”

Jeffress said in a phone interview that he was prompted to make the statement after Trump said that if North Korea’s threats to the United States continue, Pyongyang will be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

So bring on the fire and brimstone:

The biblical passage Romans 13 gives the government authority to deal with evildoers, Jeffress said. “That gives the government to the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un,” he said.

He said that many pacifist Christians will cite Romans 12, which says, “Do not repay evil for evil,” but Jeffress says that that passage is referring to Christians, not to the government.

“A Christian writer asked me, ‘Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?'” he said, referring to Jesus’s famous sermon. “I said absolutely not.”

So screw the Sermon on the Mount. Assassination or any kind of so-called “evil” punishment would not be “evil” in this case at all, which seems a bit of theological slight-of-hand, but this guy is who he is:

Jeffress is no stranger to controversy. He has said in the past that former president Barack Obama paved the way for the antichrist and drew wide attention for calling Mormonism a cult during the 2012 Republican primaries. Jeffress knows his comments on North Korea could be considered controversial, even among fellow evangelicals.

“Some Christians, perhaps younger Christians, have to think this through,” he said. “It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.”

Over the past two years, Jeffress said, Trump has been “very measured, very thoughtful in every response.”

That’s not the consensus opinion, and that’s starting the story in the middle, because the story is this:

President Trump used his harshest language yet to warn North Korea on Tuesday that it will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” if it does not stop threatening the United States.

“North Korea best not make any more threats,” Trump told reporters at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club, where he is vacationing. Saying that the threats had gone “beyond a normal state,” he twice repeated the “fire and fury” warning.

That came out of nowhere:

It was not immediately clear what Trump was responding to. A North Korean military spokesman said Tuesday that Pyongyang was considering a plan to fire missiles at Guam and that it would carry out a preemptive strike if there were any signs of U.S. provocation, Reuters reported, quoting state media.

Earlier in the day, North Korea said it would “ruthlessly take strategic measures involving physical actions,” in the wake of new economic sanctions approved Saturday by the U.N. Security Council. On Monday, Pyongyang threatened retaliation against the United States “thousands of times.”

Nothing had changed. It was the usual North Korean bullshit, but for his:

Trump’s statement also followed a report in The Washington Post that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its ballistic missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. The report quoted a confidential assessment by U.S. intelligence officials.

That was the big deal, but Trump seems to have crossed a line:

Trump’s comments drew criticism from senior lawmakers. “The great leaders I’ve seen don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act, and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told a Phoenix radio station.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said the remarks were “not helpful and once again show that he lacks the temperament and judgment” to deal with a serious crisis. “We should not be engaging in the same kind of blustery and provocative statements as North Korea about nuclear war.”

Perhaps so, but we had been being a bit unclear:

The administration has made clear that it is no longer adhering to the policy of previous administrations requiring North Korea to commit to giving up its nuclear weapons before talks can begin. While denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the ultimate goal, it is no longer a U.S. prerequisite for talks.

Repeating comments he made in the spring, Tillerson last week said the United States is not seeking regime change in North Korea.

If Tillerson’s remarks were the carrot Trump’s remarks are clearly the stick.

The White House has said it is “keeping all options on the table” regarding North Korea, including the use of military force.

Now everyone’s confused:

Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and former president George W. Bush’s top adviser on North Korea, said he took Trump’s harsh statement “not to be a sign that the United States is going to attack, but [to warn that] if North Korea actually did anything behind all their bluster, they would be met with immediate and overwhelming response. That is actually good for deterrence.”

But at the same time, Cha said, it was unclear whether Trump’s outburst was coordinated with Tillerson’s outreach.

And there was this odd context too:

Trump’s late-afternoon statement Tuesday came after he took to Twitter in the morning to amplify a Fox News report, based on anonymous sources, that U.S. spy satellites had detected North Korea loading two cruise missiles on a patrol boat on the country’s coast in recent days.

Without adding any comment of his own, Trump, who regularly decries leaks to the media, retweeted to his more than 35 million followers a link to the day-old story, which was featured Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends,” a program on Fox News.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a question about whether Trump’s retweet amounted to a confirmation of the story, which was attributed to unnamed “U.S. officials with knowledge of the latest intelligence in the region.”

One intelligence official who was asked about the report said it was insignificant and not a sign that North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile or make any other provocation. But the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, expressed chagrin that Trump would retweet a report about “something unimportant” that nonetheless “reveals something about our surveillance capabilities.”

Donald Trump is a bit impulsive, and Adam Taylor adds this:

Given the high stakes, it was unusually aggressive language from a U.S. president. Stranger still, this language has clear echoes to threats made by North Korea to the United States and its allies.

In recent years, Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has repeatedly threatened to turn the South Korean capital, Seoul, into a “sea of fire” if attacked. North Korea has even produced propaganda videos imagining what such an attack might look like. Last year, the website DPRK Today released video of a simulated attack on Seoul. The video ended with the warning: “Everything will turn into ashes.”

Washington is often the target of similar threats from North Korea. On Sunday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, warned that sanctions or other actions against Pyongyang would result in the United States being “catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”

Perhaps Donald Trump was (North) Korean all along, but he has backed himself into a corner:

The sheer frequency of these threats and insults has long made them easy to dismiss. Trump himself has spoken with relative kindness about Kim, calling him a “pretty smart cookie” in an interview in April. Now that developments have made clear that North Korea’s weapons program is developing and may soon, if not already, pose a threat to the United States, Trump appears to have changed his rhetoric.

But in doing so, he may have set himself an impossible red line: The president warned of “fire and fury” not if North Korea carried out another missile test but if it made another threat. And North Korea often makes threats.

That is a worry – nuclear war is always a worry – but this may have been accidental. That’s what Daniel Dale suggests here:

In 2012, when Donald Trump was a celebrity businessman, he wrote on Twitter: “Price of corn has jumped over 50%. This will cause a jump in food prices perhaps beyond what we’ve ever seen.”

Four years later, when he was running for president, he told the New York Times that China was building, in the South China Sea, “a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen.”

The expression popped out of his mouth again after he won the election. In December, Trump told supporters that they had created “a grassroots movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.”

And there it was again when Trump was ad-libbing about the opioid addiction crisis on Tuesday afternoon. He claimed that he was “very, very strong on our southern border – and I would say the likes of which this country certainly has never seen.”

Until that point, the president’s pet phrase was unremarkable. It was mere hyperbole – mere Trump. This was a man who never used “big” when “huge” could do. This was just how the man spoke.

And then, minutes after his remarks on opioids, the phrase suddenly became a threat of nuclear war.

It was just carelessness:

It is possible that Trump intended to make just such a nuclear threat. He has, after all, promised to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear threat “one way or the other.”

But it is also possible that the president bumbled into the threat because he did not understand the ramifications of a favorite phrase he had in his head.

“I’m guessing that this talking point didn’t come through the rigorous interagency process,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, communications director in the Obama administration.

But carelessness could get us all killed:

Kim Jong Un is now confronted with the dilemma that has vexed American voters and lawmakers alike: whether or not to take Trump literally.

“I don’t pay much attention anymore to what the president says because there’s no point in it,” Sen. John McCain told an Arizona radio station while criticizing Trump’s comments. “It’s not terrible what he said, but it’s kind of the classic Trump in that he overstates things.”

Others might not understand that:

Experts believe Kim is rational, not mad, and that he wants to avoid nuclear war. But they have long feared that Kim might be provoked by loose Trump language into miscalculating, launching a strike because he thought Trump meant precisely what he said.

That was the talk on cable news:

A confrontation between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could go south very quickly, a nuclear arms expert warned on CNN Tuesday.

While discussing revelations that the North Korean government has developed miniature nuclear warheads capable of fitting inside missiles, nuclear arms expert Tom Collina said that both Trump and Kim have volatile personalities that could make for a frightening confrontation should tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to rise.

“The most dangerous thing about the situation right now is you have two inexperienced, bombastic leaders that are now pointing nuclear weapons at each other,” said Collina, who is the policy director of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear nonproliferation advocacy organization. “It’s a dangerous situation. It’s a very unstable situation that could quickly stumble into catastrophe.”

He then went on to explain how global crises such as these can quickly spiral out of control if either side misinterprets their rivals’ intentions.

“You know, mistakes, misidentification of cues, again, neither one of these leaders have much experience doing this, so the first thing we need to do is try to sit down, get these two leaders to sit down and start talking,” he said. “How are we going to defuse this situation? How are we going to bring some stability to this very unstable situation so that we don’t stumble into war? That’s the primary thing we have to do right now.”

Neither one of these leaders have much experience doing this. That’s not comforting, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis adds this perspective:

Mr. Trump’s menacing remarks echoed the tone and cadence of President Harry S. Truman, who, in a 1945 address announcing that the United States had dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, urged the Japanese to surrender, warning that if they did not, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

It is not clear whether Mr. Trump intended the historical parallel – White House officials did not respond to questions about how much planning went into his brief statement, or what was intended by the alliterative language – but it was a stark break with decades of more measured presidential responses to brewing foreign conflicts.

This was different:

“It’s hard to think of a president using more extreme language during crisis like this before,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “Presidents usually try to use language that is even more moderate than what they may be feeling in private, because they’ve always been worried that their language might escalate a crisis.”

Mr. Truman delivered his muscular message at a time when the United States had an overwhelming military advantage over Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapon; Mr. Trump’s threat was aimed instead at a government that has developed nuclear weapons and has been testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It didn’t used to be this way:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower used to say that the more shrill the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in the language he used against the United States – promising “we will bury you” and “we’re turning out missiles like sausages” – the more tempered he would be, Mr. Beschloss said.

Eisenhower is dead, and Josh Marshall is worried:

This is a really bad and dangerous situation to start with. It was bad when President Obama left office. It’s gotten much worse since – through some mix of US threats and North Korean testing out the new administration. The worst possible thing is a President who is stupid, impulsively emotional and has something to prove, which is exactly what we have. (You think his litany of failures as President so doesn’t make him eager for a breakout, transformative moment?)  At the risk of stating the obvious, threats like this from a country that has the ability to kill everyone in North Korea at close to a moment’s notice can set off a highly unpredictable chain of events. What if North Korea issues more threats? Presumably Trump fails to respond with a nuclear attack and reveals his threats as empty or – truly, truly unimaginably – he launches a nuclear attack. These are not good choices to face.

The situation with North Korea would be an extreme challenge for a leader with ability and judgment. President Trump is simply too erratic, unstable and dangerous to be in charge in a situation like this.

Many believe that now, but Kevin Drum isn’t worried:

Trump blusters this way routinely, and anyway, he’ll probably consider anything he does to be so heroic that it’s unlike anything the world has seen. Just yesterday, referring to a fairly routine bit of resume fudging that was exposed a decade ago, he tweeted, “Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal.” Uh huh. Plus Trump is surrounded by advisors who can probably keep him in line.

The bigger worry is that all the pressure over North Korea might prompt Trump to do something stupid. This in turn might provoke North Korea into launching an attack first. If they decide that Trump is serious, it might seem the best option.

I don’t think that will happen either. Kim Jong-un isn’t crazy – he just likes to act that way. He’s probably completely rational, in the same murderous kind of way that Josef Stalin was. He might bluster like Trump, but he knows perfectly well that any war involving the United States would end with the obliteration of his country.

Still, there’s this:

All that said, this represents one of the reasons that Trump is so much worse than garden variety Republicans. With, say, Ted Cruz in office, I think there’s a zero percent chance of nuclear war. With Trump in office there’s a one percent chance. That’s not much, but it’s one percent more than I’d like.

We are dealing with an odd man, not a garden-variety Republican, and even the minor stuff is worrying. At Vice, Alex Thompson reports this:

Twice a day since the beginning of the Trump administration, a special folder is prepared for the president. The first document is prepared around 9:30 a.m. and the follow-up, around 4:30 p.m. Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and former Press Secretary Sean Spicer both wanted the privilege of delivering the 20-to-25-page packet to President Trump personally, White House sources say.

These sensitive papers, described to VICE News by three current and former White House officials, don’t contain top-secret intelligence or updates on legislative initiatives. Instead, the folders are filled with screenshots of positive cable news chyrons (those lower-third headlines and crawls), admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful.

One White House official said the only feedback the White House communications shop, which prepares the folder, has ever gotten in all these months is: “It needs to be more fucking positive.” That’s why some in the White House ruefully refer to the packet as “the propaganda document.”

But think of this as a public service:

On days when there aren’t enough positive chyrons, communications staffers will ask the RNC staffers for flattering photos of the president.

“Maybe it’s good for the country that the president is in a good mood in the morning,” one former RNC official said.

That’s one way to avoid global thermonuclear war, but Garrison Keillor suggests another way. Enlist the guy’s wife:

Everyone needs a truth-teller in his or her life and truth-tellers are becoming rare. It’s the Age of Sensitivity when we’re made to feel that we should be validating each other and not telling someone that his fly is open…

Melania – do you mind if I call you Melania? I assume that you love this guy. I don’t, even though Scripture tells me to. A bully and a braggart who is also a liar and somewhat clueless might be lovable if he were a cabdriver, but not a president. But you do, so fine. You owe it to him to tell him, “Darling, you’re making an ass of yourself. For the sake of your family… stop.”

Would you let the man run around in a headdress of flamingo feathers singing the song about each and every highway and byway and not in a shy way with his trousers around his ankles? No, you wouldn’t. But that’s what’s happening now.

You married a New York Democrat and now you’re married to Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick. Make him stop. If you can’t tell him face to face, try Twitter. A short punchy message will get his attention. Something like, “You are dumb enough to be twins. Shut up and be beautiful.”

That might work, except that Donald Trump seems to see women as no more than ornamental, and sometimes useful to him for this reason or that. He won’t listen to her. He has Pastor Robert Jeffress. Assassination or any kind of so-called “evil” punishment – a few nukes lobbed at North Korea – would not be “evil” at all. And he gets those thick folders of unalloyed praise twice a day. He is theologically secure. The rest of us may have to become atheists – to survive.

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Discounting Experience

Donald Trump entered office with no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. That was the general idea. That was good enough for just enough voters in just the right places – and after all, Barrack Obama had had no foreign policy experience either. Sarah Palin had said she “could see Russia from her house” – not the best counterargument but good enough for some folks. Obama knew nothing, but on January 11, 2007, there was this:

President Bush today signed the Lugar-Obama proliferation and threat reduction initiative into law.

Authored by U.S. Sens. Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Barack Obama (D-IL), the Lugar-Obama initiative expands U.S. cooperation to destroy conventional weapons. It also expands the State Department’s ability to detect and interdict weapons and materials of mass destruction.

That was an extension of this:

The Lugar-Obama initiative is modeled after the Nunn-Lugar program that focuses on weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) authored the program in 1991. It has provided U.S. funding and expertise to help the former Soviet Union safeguard and dismantle its enormous stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, related materials, and delivery systems. Among many accomplishments, the program has deactivated 7,000 nuclear warheads and reemployed 58,000 scientists in peaceful research. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan are nuclear weapons free as a result of cooperative efforts under the Nunn-Lugar program. They otherwise would be the world’s the third, fourth and eighth largest nuclear weapons powers, respectively.

Lugar and Obama traveled the world together, inspecting the inspectors inspecting this and that – everything from plutonium stockpiles to caches of small arms – but in 2012, Lugar was defeated in a primary challenge by Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock – a Tea Party guy – and his thirty-six years in the Senate were over. Mourdock then lost to the Democratic, Joe Donnelly, in the general election, probably because of Mourdock’s comment that “life is that gift from God that I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen” – but that was too late for Lugar. Obama had won the presidency four years earlier. Lugar got to play with his grandkids. On August 8, 2013, Obama awarded Lugar the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That must have been a bit bittersweet.

None of that is Trump’s world. Obama did enter office knowing a thing or two, even if not one person in Illinois can see Russia from their house. Obama had thought about this stuff. Josh Keating notes that that’s not Trump’s world:

If you’re feeling generous, you could say the one organizing principle of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that Iranian influence must be contained and rolled back. Though the president doesn’t seem to agree on much with senior members of his national security team, like H. R. McMaster and James Mattis, these days, they’re on the same page when it comes to the threat posed by Tehran’s regional ambitions. But far from being rolled back, Iranian influence appears to be spreading. And far from being united, the international community is deeply divided over how to respond. Some of the Trump administration’s policies may even ultimately bolster the Islamic Republic’s growing clout.

Iran is winning now:

Carlotta Gall of the New York Times reported over the weekend on Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan. Iran “is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.” Afghans also fear that Iran “is working to subvert plans in Afghanistan for upstream dams that could threaten its water supply.”

Iranian influence has grown as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has waned. From that perspective, the current debate within the U.S. administration over troop levels in the country presents something of a win-win for Iran: Washington will either commit more troops and financial resources to a fight it has little hope of winning (whatever “winning” means at this point) or it will draw down further and leave a power vacuum behind.

And then there’s the new Iraq we created:

Just days after the U.S. passed new sanctions on Iran last month, Baghdad signed a deal to boost military cooperation with Tehran. During his campaign, Trump often accused Barack Obama of handing the country over to Iran by withdrawing troops, but that die was probably cast in 2003, when the U.S. toppled the anti-Iranian government of a country that borders Iran and has a majority Shiite population. When the Iraqi military collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014, Iranian-backed Shiite militias stepped in, doing much of the fighting against the group. Now that ISIS has been mostly ousted from the country after the fall of Mosul, those militias don’t seem to be in a hurry to disband.

And it’s not just Iraq:

As reporter Borzou Daragahi recently reported in a lengthy investigative piece for BuzzFeed, militias, overseen by the secretive Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are an increasingly dominant force throughout the region. This is particularly true in Syria, where, in recent years, Iranian-backed militias have done the bulk of the on-the-ground fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. The Revolutionary Guards have reportedly also found ways to continue to supply covert arms shipments to their Houthi allies in Yemen, despite a U.S.-backed embargo.

President Trump noted these developments in his speech at a regional summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May, arguing that “nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” (The last part was a bit rich for a speech delivered to an audience primarily of monarchs and dictators.) To this end, the administration has supported new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, increased support for the brutal Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen…

On the other hand, there’s this:

The recent reports that the CIA is dropping its support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria is the clearest signal yet that the U.S. plans to leave the Syrian strongman in power, giving Iran an unblocked string of allies through Iran and Syria to the Mediterranean. At one point last spring, the U.S. military was actually firing on Iranian-backed militias to protect a group of rebels being trained by U.S. Special Forces in Southern Syria, but CNN reported recently that those rebels have left the U.S. coalition after they were told they were only to fight ISIS, not Assad. Some have even been recruited by the regime to switch sides. And while American diplomats have reportedly worked to ensure that Iranian-backed foreign fighters won’t be the ones on the ground enforcing the recent U.S.-Russia cease-fire deal, that hasn’t mollified the Israeli government, which opposes the cease-fire on the grounds that it will ensure a long-term Iranian presence in Syria.

Iran has also benefited at times from the confusion and mixed signals coming out of Washington. In June, Saudi Arabia and its allies cut off diplomatic relations with neighboring Qatar and imposed a blockade, demanding – among other things – that it cease its relatively friendly relations with Iran. The Saudis’ maximalist position was no doubt encouraged by Trump’s fighting words in Riyadh, and indeed the president took credit for the situation on Twitter. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a neutral approach to the situation, and the U.S. continued to move forward on an arms deal with Qatar, undermining the Saudi position. Qatar hasn’t backed down, and ironically the blockade’s main impact has been to deepen Qatar’s economic ties to Iran.

Nothing is going right:

China has been investing heavily in Iran’s infrastructure as part of its global “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative. European companies have also been investing in Iran since the lifting of nuclear sanctions: Just Monday, French carmaker Renault signed a $780 million deal to increase vehicle production in Iran. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s attendance over the weekend at President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration for a second term was another sign that European governments aren’t heeding Washington’s calls to isolate Iran.

That’s going to be a problem if Trump follows through on his tweets to blow up the nuclear deal entirely: The U.S. can re-impose its own sanctions, but they won’t have the same bite they did before 2015 if other countries don’t join the push. Trump has made matters worse by signaling that he plans to certify Iran as noncompliant with the deal, whether or not his intelligence agencies conclude that it is. This makes it patently obvious that the U.S. administration wants to kill the deal no matter what and has no serious intention of giving diplomacy a chance. If Trump goes through with it, Iran could end up with something it almost never has: widespread international support.

There’s only one place this leads:

It would be ironic if this deeply anti-Iranian administration ended up increasing Iran’s regional clout and global influence. Of course, this assumes the Trump administration doesn’t follow its current Iran policies to their logical endpoint: armed conflict.

That’s where everything seems to be leading now:

The Trump administration has hailed the latest United Nations sanctions against nuclear-armed North Korea as the most severe yet, and the North’s fury over the penalties suggested they carried some sting.

In a staccato of outraged reactions on Monday to the sanctions imposed over the weekend, North Korea threatened retaliation against the United States “thousands of times” over, vowed to never give up its nuclear arsenal and called the penalties a panicky response by an American bully.

But it is unclear at best – experts on sanctions say – whether the measures will hinder North Korea’s nuclear militarization or even crimp its economy.

This was a diplomatic victory that didn’t matter:

The sanctions are aimed at pressuring North Korea into negotiating, with the goal of renouncing its nuclear weapons. But Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, has repeatedly said that the country’s nuclear capabilities are crucial to its self-defense.

North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, reinforced that point, denouncing the new sanctions on Monday in Manila at a regional ministerial meeting that was also attended by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table,” Mr. Ri said in a statement.

“Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated,” Mr. Ri said, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.

In a more ominous response, North Korea’s official news agency said, “There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.”

They are not moved, but we still must move:

Like all United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea for more than a decade, the effectiveness of the new round, which American officials say could cost North Korea’s government about $1 billion annually, depends on faithful enforcement by China and to a lesser extent Russia.

Both countries joined in the Security Council’s unanimous vote on Saturday to penalize North Korea. But neither China nor Russia has a strong record of policing sanctions against the North. China, the North’s major benefactor by far, is reluctant to squeeze its economy for fear of causing instability on its borders.

And the pressure isn’t real anyway:

The sanctions adopted by the 15-member Council left important elements of the North Korean economy untouched. For example, the resolution did not sanction oil imports, which are critical to the functioning of the North Korean state.

Further, North Korean laborers who work overseas and send remittances home – money that the United Nations says is used in the weapons program – will be allowed to stay abroad. The new sanctions cap the current number of workers overseas, but stop short of calling for those who already work abroad to return to North Korea.

This is, then, rather pathetic:

By allowing North Korea to continue sending workers abroad, the Security Council missed an easy target for crimping revenue, said Joseph DeThomas, a former State Department official who specialized in sanctions against Iran and North Korea…

Mr. DeThomas offered a mixed view of the latest sanctions.

“I am not saying it was not a good thing to do,” he said. “I am saying it is probably too little, too late. Other cards will have to be played by China, the U.S. and South Korea if something very damaging, bloody and politically catastrophic is to be avoided.”

Josh Keating adds this:

From Beijing’s point of view, encirclement by U.S. military power is a bigger security threat than North Korea’s nukes, and Chinese leaders are unlikely to put enough pressure on North Korea to risk the collapse of a valuable buffer state. Sebastian Gorka’s confidence notwithstanding, Trump’s tweets aren’t “powerful” enough to change that thinking.

The new sanctions are stronger than past measures but are still unlikely to lead Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear program voluntarily. And Trump’s previous notion that China could simply solve this problem for everyone is magical thinking. As before the sanctions, there are still only two probable ways to resolve this crisis: negotiation or war.

Negotiation is a possibility:

There are signs that at least some factions of the Trump administration are open to negotiation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week, “We would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea.” He emphasized, “We’re trying to convey to the North Koreans, we are not your enemy.” Despite tweeting last week that the U.S. was “done talking” about North Korea, Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley also emphasized in her speech Saturday that, “we want only security and prosperity for all nations – including North Korea.”

Negotiation might not be a possibility:

Sen. Lindsey Graham said last week that he believes military action against North Korea is “inevitable” and that “if there’s going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here and Trump told me that to my face.”

Of course, that assumes that North Korea doesn’t already have the capability of striking the U.S. with nuclear weapons – though some experts argue it does. As frightening and bleak as Graham’s scenario sounds, it may not be frightening and bleak enough.

Dana Milbank isn’t so sure of that:

On North Korea, Trump has long been making threats and ultimatums, promising “severe things” and raising the possibility that South Korea and Japan could build nuclear arsenals. He was harshly (if vaguely) critical of the Obama administration’s handling of North Korea, saying Obama and Hillary Clinton – who were pushing for tougher sanctions – weren’t being strong enough.

And now? Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered soothing words about North Korea: “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel,” he said. “We are trying to convey to the North Koreans: We are not your enemy, we are not your threat.”

Those words cleared the way for China and Russia to support the sanctions resolution at the United Nations on Saturday…

That’s nice, but Kevin Drum argues the other way:

Fifteen years ago, it’s possible that diplomacy could have stopped North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. That’s certainly what I thought. It’s also possible that heavy sanctions could have done it. It’s even possible that military action could have done it, though that would have been very risky for reasons that everyone knows about…

None of this is true anymore. North Korea already has nuclear weapons. They have a productive source of fissile material. They’re very close to developing a reliable ICBM, and probably close to developing a nuclear warhead small enough for their ICBMs. That’s what the DIA thinks, anyway. And North Korea has made it crystal clear that developing a nuclear deterrent capability against the United States is their number one national priority.

That means that we’re stuck:

Liberals like to think that maybe more diplomacy will stop North Korea’s nuclear program. It won’t. Conservatives like to think that tougher sanctions, or possibly military force, will stop their nuclear program. They won’t. Donald Trump likes to pretend that China can stop their nuclear program. They either can’t or won’t. Like it or not, this is where we are.

There are only two options left. Either we accept a nuclear-armed North Korea or we launch a nuclear strike to take out their capabilities. Since a nuclear strike is insane for too many reasons to list – including the fact that it might not even work – this means we really have no options at all. We can, if we want, maintain a hostile attitude toward North Korea as a signal to others about the price of developing nukes, but we basically have to accept the reality that North Korea is a nuclear state.

And that leaves this:

Let’s knock off the fantasy op-eds full of vague talk about China and sanctions and diplomacy. Instead, tell people the bald truth. It would give the hawks some pause, and might even reduce the pressure that could lead someone like Donald Trump to do something stupid. This is, unfortunately, something we all have to think about these days.

That is the worry and everyone knows the story – “In their final conversations during the transition, Barack Obama issued a stark warning to Donald Trump: North Korea presents the most urgent, alarming, and bedeviling threat you will confront as head of the free world.”

Trump blew him off. He was a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and after all, Barrack Obama had had no foreign policy experience either – but Obama had – and Obama knew this was a problem for which there might not be any good solution, or any solution.

That, of course, was not Trump’s world. That, of course, is now Trump’s world. Expect something stupid. Experience doesn’t count, until it does.

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The Guns of This August

Don’t go to Paris in August. The place isn’t the same. Everyone’s on vacation – the French folks have left the city for the beaches down south, or up in Normandy. There’s good surfing in Biarritz and there’s the French side of the Alps and campgrounds from Brittany to Provence. There’s no one in Paris. The good places are all closed for the month. Only the tourist traps are open – or definitely go to Paris in August. You won’t have to deal with any pesky French people. Everyone’s speaking English – or Japanese. It’s like being at Disney World – with better architecture – but be sure to leave before La Rentrée. That’s when everyone comes back from their month off and Paris kind of reopens for business – the reentry. Real life resumes in September.

It’s not so here. America is always open for business. Only fools take vacations – Americans don’t. We’re morally opposed to the whole concept of vacation, or afraid our job will be gone when we return – but we do get the idea that not much happens in late summer. Congress does its French thing, taking a six-week recess even if August has only four weeks. They’ve left town.

They get it, but Donald Trump was once morally opposed to the whole concept of vacation, as Jay Willis notes here:

“Don’t take vacations. What’s the point? If you’re not enjoying your work, you’re in the wrong job,” said Donald Trump knowingly in 2004. “Barack Obama played golf yesterday. Now he heads to a 10-day vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Nice work ethic,” observed Donald Trump sarcastically in 2010. “President Obama is about to embark on a 17-day vacation in his ‘native’ Hawaii,” exclaimed Donald Trump incredulously in 2013. “I would not be a president who took vacations,” promised Donald Trump confidently in 2015.

Chris Cillizza notes how things have changed:

President Donald Trump departed the White House on Friday for a 17-day working vacation at his golf club in New Jersey.

Trump’s vacation, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, is twice as long as the vacation President Barack Obama took to Martha’s Vineyard in his first year in office – and will mean Trump has spent 53 “leisure” days through August 2017 as compared to 15 for Obama through August 2009.

Cillizza, however, wants to cut the guy some slack:

The reason Trump made such a big deal about Obama’s vacations – and golf habits – was because it worked for his own political interests at the time. The Republican base thought Obama was lazy, distracted and ineffective. That he took vacations – and to liberal enclaves like Martha’s Vineyard!!! – played perfectly into that perception.

For Trump, attacking Obama on vacationing was the equivalent of crushing a hanging curveball deep into the left field stands. It was there. So he swung at it. Hard. Again and again.

Ditto Trump’s campaign promise not to take vacations. He was running as the anti-Obama, the tough-talking, hard-deal-making business guy who knew how to run things – not the professor-turned-community-organizer who thought more government was the answer to anything and everything.

If Obama vacationed, Trump wouldn’t. Period.

Like many things Trump says, he didn’t actually mean he wasn’t going to take vacations. Just like he didn’t actually mean he wasn’t going to play golf. He believed it all at the time. But that time is not now.

Thus everyone should relax:

Because of Trump’s hypocrisy on the whole vacation thing, we’re not going to hear the last of the politics of vacation for, at least, four years. But can we make both candidates for president the next time around sign some sort of pledge not to make an issue of the other one going on vacation? Everyone needs it!

That’s fine, and the guy does need a vacation. Jonathan Chait points out that President Trump’s approval rating has dropped by about one percentage point per month and now sits in the mid-thirties, and at the current rate, it would hit zero in September 2020 – which Chait admits is absurd, because political trends are never linear. Still. Chait argues that Trump’s presidency has already collapsed:

Trump’s administration had, through most of July, managed to hold together some basic level of partisan cohesion with a still-enthusiastic base and supportive partners in Congress. This has quickly collapsed.

Signs of the disintegration have popped up everywhere. The usual staff turmoil came to a boil in the course of ten days, during which the following occurred: The president denounced his own attorney general in public, the press secretary quit, a new communications director came aboard, the chief of staff was fired, the communications director accused the chief strategist of auto-fellatio in an interview, then he was himself fired. Meanwhile, the secretary of State and national-security adviser were both reported to be eyeing the exits. (Against this colorful backdrop, the ominous news that Robert Mueller had convened a grand jury barely registered.)

But wait, there’s more:

More disturbingly for Trump, Republicans in Congress have openly broken ranks. When the Senate voted down the latest (and weakest) proposal to repeal Obamacare, Trump demanded the chamber resume the effort, as he has before. This time, Republican leaders defied him and declared the question settled for the year. When the president threatened to withhold promised payments to insurers in retribution, Republicans in Congress proposed to continue making them. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley, responding to the president’s threat to sack Jeff Sessions, announced he had no time to confirm a new attorney general. Many Republican senators have endorsed bills to block the president from firing the special counsel.

But wait, there’s more:

The most humiliating rebuke came in the form of a bill to lock in sanctions on Russia, passed by Congress without the president’s consent. The premise of the sanctions law is that Congress cannot trust the president to safeguard the national interest, treating him as a potential Russian dupe. It passed through both chambers almost unanimously. Trump delayed signing the bill for days, then submitted to its passage in the most begrudging fashion possible, releasing a statement that reads less like something a president would publish to commemorate the signing of a law than a petulant handwritten note a grounded teen might tape to the bedroom door. “Congress could not even negotiate a health-care bill after seven years of talking,” wrote the president of the United States. “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected.”

But I built a great company worth many billions of dollars! But I built a great company worth many billions of dollars! So what? That was pathetic. Republicans said nothing about this, probably because they were embarrassed for him, or embarrassed by him, but there’s more:

During his very brief tenure as communications director, Anthony Scaramucci blurted out something very telling: “There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.” The conviction that Trump is dangerously unfit to hold office is indeed shared widely within his own administration. Leaked accounts consistently depict the president as unable to read briefing materials written at an adult level, easily angered, prone to manipulation through flattery, subject to change his mind frequently to agree with whomever he spoke with last, and consumed with the superficiality of cable television. In the early days of the administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then–Homeland Security Director John Kelly secretly agreed that one of the two should remain in the country at all times “to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House,” the Associated Press reported recently.

And the insurrection appears to be creeping outward. When Trump tweeted that he would ban transgender Americans from military service, the Defense Department announced there had been “no modifications to the current policy” and that, “in the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.” When Trump gave a speech to police urging them to rough up suspects, several police chiefs and even the head of his own Drug Enforcement Agency registered their public objections. The accretion of these acts of defiance is significant. The federal government has flipped on its chief executive.

Chait lays it all out in a few brief paragraphs and sees this:

Barring resignation or removal from office – which would require the vote of a House majority plus two-thirds of the Senate – we are stuck with a delegitimized president serving out the remaining seven-eighths of his term.

No wonder the guy needs a vacation, to do the impossible, to regroup, but there’s Robin Wright in The New Yorker with this:

I asked top Republican and intelligence officials from eight Administrations what they thought was the one thing the President needs to grasp to succeed on the world stage. Their various replies: embrace the fact that the Russians are not America’s friends. Don’t further alienate the Europeans, who are our friends. Encourage human rights—a founding principle of American identity – and don’t make priority visits to governments that curtail them, such as Poland and Saudi Arabia. Understand that North Korea’s nuclear program can’t be outsourced to China, which can’t nor won’t singlehandedly fix the problem anyway, and realize that military options are limited. Pulling out of innovative trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will boost China’s economy and secure its global influence – to America’s disadvantage. Stop bullying his counterparts. And put the Russia case behind him by cooperating with the investigation rather than trying to discredit it.

Good luck with that:

Trump’s latest blunder was made during an appearance in the Rose Garden with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on July 25th. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” Trump pronounced. He got the basics really wrong. Hezbollah is actually part of the Lebanese government – and has been for a quarter century – with seats in parliament and Cabinet posts. Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel Aoun, has been allied with Hezbollah for a decade. As Trump spoke, Hezbollah’s militia and the Lebanese Army were fighting ISIS and an Al Qaeda affiliate occupying a chunk of eastern Lebanon along its border with Syria. They won.

But wait, there’s more:

The list of other Trump blunders is long. In March, he charged that Germany owed “vast sums” to the United States for NATO. It doesn’t. No NATO member pays the United States – and never has – so none is in arrears. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in April, Trump claimed that Korea “actually used to be part of China.” Not true. After he arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, in May, Trump said that he had just come from the Middle East. (Did he even look at a map?) During his trip to France, in July, the President confused Napoleon Bonaparte, the diminutive emperor who invaded Russia and Egypt, with Napoleon III, who was France’s first popularly elected President, oversaw the design of modern Paris, and is still the longest-serving head of state since the French Revolution (albeit partly as an emperor, too). And that’s before delving into his demeaning tweets about other world leaders and flashpoints.

This is not good:

“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me – and I had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration, told me.

This guy really needs a vacation to regroup, which is clearly impossible, and Jonathan Chait sees trouble ahead:

Trump’s obsession with humiliation and dominance has left him ill-prepared to cope with high-profile failure. He seems unlikely to content himself with quiet, incremental bureaucratic reform.

And yet it is difficult to see what Trump can do to reverse the situation. His next major domestic-agenda item, a regressive tax cut, is highly unpopular. He has inherited peace and prosperity. Nobody in the administration has been indicted. It is far easier to imagine conditions changing for the worse than the better.

That leaves this:

Trump could regain public standing through the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually occurs following a domestic attack or at the outset of a war. A miniature version of that dynamic was on display in April, when Trump launched a small missile strike on Syria, garnering widespread praise in the media for his newfound stature. The 9/11 attacks elevated George W. Bush’s approval ratings for three years, long enough for his party to gain seats in the 2002 midterms and for Bush, two years later, to win what is still the Republican Party’s only national-vote plurality victory since 1988.

Expect the same:

Trump’s authoritarian tendencies make the prospect of his rebuilding his legitimacy on the basis of security especially dangerous. The number of Republicans who see Trump as a strong leader has dropped by 22 percentage points since January. Trump’s opportunity lies in exploiting fear to demonstrate strength.

Expect war:

After 9/11, Democrats and the mainstream news media, harking back to the national unity that prevailed after Pearl Harbor, demonstrated their patriotism by supporting their president almost unquestioningly. That choice allowed Bush to escape scrutiny for policies that may have helped enable the attacks to happen. (Before, his administration had deemphasized the fight against Al Qaeda.) Bush’s ground-zero halo gave him a presumption of competence as commander-in-chief that enabled him to launch a war without planning for the occupation. It mostly survived the revelations of the 9/11 Commission Report three years later and did not fully dissipate until the Iraq War occupation had unmistakably descended into a quagmire.

Or don’t expect war:

The ability of a president to gain popularity by launching (or suffering) an attack is not a law of nature. It reflects, in part, choices – by the opposition to withhold criticism and by the news media to accept the administration’s framing of the facts at face value. A chaotic, still-understaffed administration led by a novice commander-in-chief who has alienated American allies deserves no benefit of the doubt. Everything from Trump’s incompetent management of the Department of Energy, which safeguards nuclear materials, to the now-skeletal State Department, to his blustering international profile has exposed the country to an elevated risk of a mass tragedy. A long-term task of the opposition is to prevent the crumbling presidency from transmuting that weakness into strength.

That might work. A stunningly incompetent novice commander-in-chief who has alienated everyone in the world but Sean Hannity doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt – unless he does.

That’s what worries Slate’s Josh Keating, who adds this perspective:

In Barack Obama’s second term, when his domestic agenda was largely blocked by congressional opposition, he increasingly focused on foreign-policy projects. 2015 alone saw a thaw in diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Paris Agreement on climate change…

The reasons for this are obvious. Presidents take office having campaigned on domestic bread-and-butter issues that matter more to voters and therefore focus more on those issues at the outset. Woodrow Wilson, who is today overwhelmingly remembered for his role in World War I and its aftermath, but who campaigned as an economic reformer, remarked before his inauguration in 1913 that it “would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” But sooner or later, presidents find that they have much more freedom to act without interference from Congress in matters of war and peace. There’s also research suggesting that foreign policy success – particularly military success and the resulting boost in popularity – can help a president to get prized legislation through Congress.

So this is a second-term thing, but not with Donald Trump:

There hasn’t been a modern president who has run his domestic agenda into the ground as quickly as Trump has or one as impatient for quick wins. With nothing doing on Capitol Hill, Trump may increasingly start looking for successes overseas.

Trump has already found Obama’s foreign policy initiatives easier to undo than this domestic ones: Contrast the agonizing Obamacare repeal fight with the ease with which Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, reinstated the anti-abortion Mexico City policy, and partially rolled back the opening to Cuba.

Now Trump may have something more ambitious in mind, which is where things get troubling.

That’s the worry:

It’s theoretically possible that Trump’s big foreign policy initiative could take the form of a diplomatic agreement, but it seems unlikely – and not only because of the general disdain this administration holds for diplomacy.

Judging by recent events, the process of reaching what Trump called the “ultimate deal” for Israeli–Palestinian peace seems to be going slowly. In an ideal world, Trump might want to strike some sort of grand bargain with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over Syria or Ukraine, but the ongoing Russia investigation as well as just-passed sanctions legislation (designed specifically to prevent Trump from lifting sanctions) make that all but impossible. Trump despises most trade deals, and his plan to renegotiate NAFTA is likely going to require a long and frustrating battle with Congress.

Military action seems more likely to generate the kind of public support that Trump craves.

And the current wars just won’t do:

Unfortunately for Trump, America’s current armed conflicts don’t hold out much prospect for glory. There won’t be any parades for the defeat of ISIS: In the next few months, ISIS will be routed from its capital in Raqqa but will then transition from a territorial power to a still extremely dangerous underground insurgent group – all while Syria becomes an even more chaotic regional conflict. In Afghanistan, Trump is skeptical, with justification, that sending more troops would finally stabilize that country or lead to anything resembling “victory” in America’s longest-running war.

Trump inherited these wars from Bush and Obama, so the alarming prospect is that in an effort to distinguish himself from his predecessors, he will want one of his own.

He may just get one:

Trump only reluctantly certified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal in July, and he has reportedly instructed his national security team to find a rationale for declaring that Tehran is in violation, even though international inspectors and his own intelligence agencies affirm that it is. The endpoint of Trump’s backward logic – that Iran should be declared noncompliant and then pretext found to back up that position – can only increase the risk of armed conflict.

Then there’s North Korea, which U.S. officials believe is nearing the threshold of developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. The U.S. flew B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula on Sunday, following the North’s most recent missile test, as Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley declared on Twitter that the U.S. is “Done talking about North Korea.”

So worry:

It not clear how much of this is bluster. But at the moment, the risk of a small provocation leading to a confrontation that could put thousands of lives in peril is high, and the president is not exactly known for biding his time or choosing his words carefully. Last week, for instance, Trump tweeted, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…” then waited nine minutes before the next tweet declaring that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military. BuzzFeed News reported that at the Pentagon, the initial tweet “raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action.”

The reason fears were raised was probably that declaring war via tweet amid a week of political setbacks would not be out of character for this president. As Trump’s frustrations in Washington continue to mount, the risk only grows greater.

That’s what makes Trump’s August vacation troubling. Consider the start of the First World War – July 28, 1914, the day the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots in their invasion of Serbia, then Russia mobilized, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg, and then moved on France, leading Britain to declare war on Germany, and so on. Nine million died. Consider The Guns of August – that’s the famous Barbara Tuchman book about how that war started, and then snowballed into a worldwide mess. The trigger was one event on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo – a single Serbian hothead assassinated the heir-apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which seemed a kind of minor event but wasn’t. There were alliances and geopolitical ambitions, and fears, and one thing led to another, quickly. The world was at war within a week of that assassination, thus the title of the Tuchman book.

Tuchman explains, in detail, how one thing led to another, but she doesn’t address how everyone could be so stupid. She’s descriptive, not judgmental, but a single event can plunge the world into war.

A single tweet can do that too – from a frustrated easily angered president, prone to manipulation through flattery, subject to changing his mind frequently to agree with whomever he spoke with last, and consumed with whatever was on the Fox News morning show that day. He may be on vacation but that doesn’t matter much. He can tweet.

In France there’s La Rentrée – everyone comes back from their month off – the reentry. Real life resumes in September. This year it might not.

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Generally Speaking Now

Back in February, 2016, before anything was decided, Emily Flitter filed a curious background story for Reuters:

Presidential candidate Donald Trump admires the late Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, both World War Two generals. They were winners, unpredictable, and not especially nice guys, he says in campaign speeches. But Trump’s pledge to imitate their styles sets modern-day military experts on edge.

Although unquestionably in the pantheon of U.S. military heroes, MacArthur and Patton were also controversial figures remembered by historians as flamboyant self-promoters. The commander in the Pacific, MacArthur was eventually fired by President Harry Truman for speaking out against Truman’s policies in the Korean War, which followed World War Two. Before Patton died in December 1945, he questioned the need to remove Nazis from key posts in postwar German politics and society.

It seems that Donald Trump doesn’t attend to details like that:

Born in 1946, a year after World War Two ended, Trump often praises MacArthur and Patton for the blunt ways he says they commanded respect. “George Patton was one of the roughest guys, he would talk rough to his men,” Trump told an audience last week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “His men would die for him,” Trump added. “We don’t have that anymore.” He said Patton would wipe out Islamic State without hesitation, were he still in command.

His crowds cheered, but others didn’t:

Interviewed by Reuters, recently retired military personnel voiced doubts about Trump’s grasp of U.S. military operations. One retired four-star general called Trump’s references to Patton and MacArthur “bumper sticker foolishness.” Another said Trump was comparing “apples to oranges” by likening America’s role in World War Two to the fight against Islamic State.

“He has no understanding of how it works, at least in my view,” said an aide to a third retired four-star general. “He makes these bold statements and one-liners, but that doesn’t translate into understanding what it takes to be a military leader, what it takes to develop a plan.”

Donald Trump would disagree, and has. Even if he didn’t go to Vietnam, he did attend a military academy, not a regular high school, so he knows about such things, or so he says:

Donald J. Trump, who received draft deferments through much of the Vietnam War, told the author of a coming biography that he nevertheless “always felt that I was in the military” because of his education at a military-themed boarding school.

Mr. Trump said his experience at the New York Military Academy, an expensive prep school where his parents had sent him to correct poor behavior, gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”

He seems to believe that, but now he’s run into the real thing.

Glenn Thrush, along with Michael Shear and Eileen Sullivan, report on Donald Trump’s encounter with the real thing:

In his six months as Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly often described the White House as one of the most dysfunctional organizations he had ever seen, complained to colleagues and allies about its meddling, incompetence and recklessness, and was once so angry he briefly considered quitting.

Now as President Trump’s chief of staff, he is doing something about it – with a suddenness and force that have upended the West Wing.

This is what an actual general does:

Mr. Kelly cuts off rambling advisers midsentence. He listens in on conversations between cabinet secretaries and the president. He has booted lingering staff members out of high-level meetings, and ordered the doors of the Oval Office closed to discourage strays. He fired Anthony Scaramucci, the bombastic New Yorker who was briefly the communications director, and has demanded that even Mr. Trump’s family, including his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, check with him if they want face time with the president.

On Wednesday, his third day on the job, he delivered a message about respecting chains of command, backing the decision of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to dismiss Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Kushner ally and staff member on the National Security Council. It was a move Mr. Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, had long opposed, according to two administration officials.

He did what had to be done, but continuing on with this will not be easy:

Whether Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, will succeed in imposing military discipline on the faction-ridden White House remains in doubt; Mr. Trump has never been known to follow anybody’s direction, in Trump Tower or the White House. But Mr. Trump has never encountered anyone quite like Mr. Kelly, a combat veteran whose forceful management style and volatile temper are a match for the president’s.

“He’d basically look at me and say, ‘I think that proposal is four-letter-word nuts,'” said Leon E. Panetta, who as defense secretary made Mr. Kelly his chief military aide. “John is the kind of guy who will look you in the eye and tell you what the hell he is thinking. The real question is whether the president will give him the authority he needs to do the job.”

That will be the question:

Mr. Kelly, 67, has told his new employees that he was hired to manage the staff, not the president. He will not try to change Mr. Trump’s Twitter or TV-watching habits. But he has also said he wants to closely monitor the information the president consumes, quickly counter dubious news stories with verified facts, and limit the posse of people urging Mr. Trump to tweet something they feel passionately about.

He has privately acknowledged that he cannot control the president and that his authority would be undermined if he tried and failed. Instead, he is intent on cosseting Mr. Trump with bureaucratic competence and forcing staff members to keep to their lanes, a challenge in an administration defined by tribal loyalties to power players like Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon.

But he’s had a head start on that:

Mr. Kelly has not been shy about letting Mr. Trump’s staff members know when they screwed up, ripping into West Wing aides during the chaos surrounding the president’s original travel ban when he was at the Department of Homeland Security. While he supported the broad policy goals, he was furious that he and his sprawling agency’s staff were caught off guard by a directive that was conceived and carried out by inexperienced aides in the White House, according to several longtime Trump advisers.

People close to Mr. Kelly said he also bristled repeatedly at efforts by Mr. Bannon and Stephen Miller, the president’s senior adviser, to install people they liked in his department. Mr. Kelly eventually won pitched battles over who would become director of Customs and Border Protection and head of the Secret Service, officials said.

This could work:

Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, who has known Mr. Kelly for two decades, said the fact that the president agreed to have family members report to the new chief of staff was “a really important first step.”

“The question is, does it last?” he added. “But it sends a powerful signal to the rest of the people in the White House.”

Mr. Gates, who was also Mr. Kelly’s boss as defense secretary, recalled the times he sat with Mr. Kelly at the Pentagon across a small conference table once used by Jefferson Davis when he was secretary of war. Mr. Gates would tell Mr. Kelly what he was planning to do and Mr. Kelly would say, “You could do it that way.”

What that really meant, Mr. Gates said, was “that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” Mr. Kelly would then offer another – often better – option, Mr. Gates said.

That might not work with Donald Trump:

Mr. Panetta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff before he went to the Pentagon, said he urged Mr. Kelly to buy a “big bottle of Scotch” when he agreed to take the job.

A White House spokeswoman did not know if he had gotten around to buying one yet, but said the new chief of staff preferred Irish whiskey.

He might have already stocked up Irish whiskey, given this odd paragraph buried in a Wall Street Journal discussion of all this:

Soon after accepting the chief of staff position, Mr. Kelly picked up C. S. Forester’s novel, The General. The 1936 novel chronicles a British officer’s rise through the ranks until finally his mediocrity catches up with him and he causes thousands of men to be unnecessarily killed. Mr. Kelly had also read it six months ago when he was given the job of Homeland Security secretary, and before taking top command posts as a Marine general – as a reminder of what to avoid as a leader.

C. S. Forester all also wrote all those Horatio Hornblower novels – about a fictional Napoleonic Wars era Royal Navy officer. Ernest Hemingway said “I recommend Forester to everyone literate I know” and Winston Churchill said “I find Hornblower admirable” and Gene Roddenberry said he modeled Captain Kirk in Star Trek on Horatio Hornblower. He made William Shatner read those books. Hornblower is courageous, intelligent, and skilled, but burdened by his intense reserve, introspection, and self-doubt. He’s often “unhappy and lonely” – but he has a hyper-developed sense of duty. Gregory Peck played him in the movies – as Atticus Finch at sea. Kelly reading Forester makes sense.

Dustin McKissen says Kelly won’t last long:

His title may be chief of staff, but Kelly is really more like the perfect chief operating officer for an organization with a CEO who has a constant need for the spotlight.

And though the White House is likely to be far more productive and functional with an empowered COO, President Donald Trump’s inability to share the spotlight means John Kelly will ultimately be pushed out the door.

Right now, Trump seems to understand that he’s on the brink of a failed presidency, and he has brought in a COO to create a functioning team.

That’s the real problem:

What if John Kelly is as good at being the White House chief of staff as he was at being a Marine? What if he gets credit for keeping the president from tweeting the country’s way into a war or recession? Will there suddenly be an issue of TIME magazine with “President Kelly” on the cover? If that happens, we’re likely to relive a familiar chain of events: a string of negative tweets, a Trump interview with The New York Times, and, eventually, Sarah Huckabee Sanders wishing Kelly the best of luck.

McKissen says that this will end badly for Kelly.

Ultimately John Kelly will be fired because he will do a good job at bringing order and stability to the White House and his integrity will make the entire country – Republican and Democrat – look to him as a source of stability and sanity.

No matter how much he discourages it or avoids it, the spotlight will shine brightly on John Kelly specifically because he is an actual leader.

And Donald Trump is a CEO who never shares the spotlight.

In Vanity Fair, T. A. Frank argues the other way:

We can see now why Reince Priebus never had a chance. He was a supplicant to whom the job of chief of staff was given as a reward. People don’t take orders from supplicants. Maybe an exceptional operator could have changed the power balance after landing the gig, but Priebus was no such person, and bad advice on how to deal with Capitol Hill sealed his fate. Kelly, by contrast, is the reluctant appointee, and Trump is the supplicant. According to reports, Trump began to court Kelly for the new role as early as in May, but Kelly declined the job and increased his leverage by the day. No wonder, then, that Trump is reported to be on his best behavior…

Gone are the early-morning Twitter rants, replaced by actual statements of accomplishment. Even Trump’s single combative tweet, a defense of social media as the “only way for me to get the truth out” in the face of “the Fake News Media and Trump enemies,” had an air of face-saving defiance. Perhaps Kelly ringingly endorsed Trump’s declaration that tweeting would continue while recommending ongoing analysis of all statements going forward to see if results lined up with intention. Who knows? If Twitter discipline continues for two weeks, though, we’ll know that Kelly is the reason, and we’ll also have a steady indicator of whether Kelly’s influence is holding up or on the wane.

But Kelly is the man, for now:

You can always come up with an unfavorable explanation for someone’s choices – hubris and lust for power are often those assigned to senior White House officials – but in Kelly’s case they wouldn’t make much sense. Kelly doesn’t need the gig. He has had a distinguished career on which he could easily cash in for hefty rewards. Nor will he have fun. At DHS, Kelly enjoyed autonomy and White House admiration. At the White House, he must daily negotiate the impulses of a mercurial boss who goes through people like a poacher through elephants. What makes the most sense is a non-cynical take: that Kelly is a patriot with a sense of duty. When you’ve lost your son to war, as Kelly did in 2010, you tend to stop worrying about career poles, if you ever did. The task of repairing the performance of your commander in chief, the man in charge of others like your late son, becomes not only impossible to refuse but deeply personal.

That in turn may change Trump:

There hasn’t been much good to say about Trump in a long time, but recruiting Kelly suggests that he learns, very belatedly, from his mistakes, and that he’s capable of some small degree of humility. What may finally be dawning on Trump, long after realistic possibilities of repair, is an old observation of management scholar Peter Drucker on promotions. “The things you did to get the promotion are almost certainly the wrong things to do now,” Drucker wrote, warning that failure to recognize this rule underlies most unsuccessful promotions. Trump keeps remembering how his impulsivity and trash-talking during the campaign got him into the White House. He didn’t seem to consider that these might be drawback.

General Kelly can help him with that, but Jennifer Rubin says that there are a few things that Kelly has to tell Trump right now:

There was no massive voting fraud in 2016. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 3 million votes.

None of the health-care plans put forth by Republicans that you endorsed cover “everybody”; they all resulted in millions fewer insured people. The House bill for which you threw a celebratory Rose Garden gathering cut Medicaid substantially. You promised you wouldn’t do that in the campaign.

The Russia investigation is not fake news or a hoax. Contrary to your representations, the campaign had multiple contacts with the Russians. Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner all made representations that were not true concerning contacts with Russian officials.

You involved yourself in creating a fake cover story for the June 2016 meeting with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort. Combined with the firing of James B. Comey, the special prosecutor may have a case for obstruction of justice.

If you fire Robert S. Mueller III, it is quite possible Congress will move to impeach you.

Russia did interfere with our election and is engaged in widespread cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns against the West. These are facts. Denying them makes you seem like a Russian pawn, or crazy. Congress is not responsible for the state of relations with Russia; Russia is.

Your approval is really, really low and you are losing some of your core base, including whites with no college degree. As a result of that and failure of health-care reform, Republicans in Congress now ignore you. They will be more likely to send legislation you don’t like and to insist on vigorous investigation of the Russia scandal.

The vast majority of Americans really want you to stop tweeting. You sound uninformed and unhinged in many of these missives. You’ve diminished the office of the presidency.

Your son-in-law and daughter are unqualified to be senior advisers. Jared has made some really bad recommendations (like hiring Anthony Scaramucci and firing Comey). They should go back to New York. Honestly, you’d be doing them a favor.

Stephen Miller is awful on TV. He came across as a bully and someone who does not like immigrants (which may be candid but is nevertheless unacceptable to most Americans). He should not go on TV again.

You ran as a populist but your agenda on taxes is tilted toward the very rich. You will allow Democrats to take back their white working-class voters if you keep governing like a pro-billionaire right-winger. You should not have so many Goldman Sachs billionaires in the Cabinet. Rich people are not necessarily smart or good at governing.

The State Department is a hot mess. You need a new secretary of state.

Trade protectionism is bad for America; NAFTA did not cause us to lose millions of jobs.

We need immigrants for economic growth. The Cotton-Perdue bill, according to more than a thousand economists, would be a disaster.

A wall on the southern border is an expensive, unnecessary boondoggle.

Donald Trump does not want to hear any of that, and Rubin sees this as unsustainable:

Without these lies there would be virtually nothing for Trump to say and nothing left of his presidency. If Kelly ever decided to level with Trump, he’d need to tell the president that his behavior is unbecoming and that his “ideas” are daft. And that’s the problem. There’s no way to tell this president the truth and remain in the administration.

That may not be true, because Jared Keller sees a subtle military coup in progress:

Last month, President Donald Trump suddenly replaced Chief of Staff Reince Priebus with retired Marine General John Kelly. The shake-up made Kelly the fourth general to ascend to the highest echelons of the executive branch of the Trump administration, following Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. These men are all good chums – Mattis and Kelly recommended each other for Secretary of Defense back in November, and Dunford is apparently one of Kelly’s closest friends. Their combined presence also constitutes a military power unprecedented in decades; there haven’t been this many generals in the executive branch since World War II.

Trump, using the power of the Appointments Clause under Article II of the Constitution, can appoint whomever he wants to whatever post he wants. But by surrounding himself with “the generals,” Trump may have inadvertently allowed this coterie of military leaders to reshape the White House.

Consider the evidence:

The Kelly clampdown has coincided with a two-pronged campaign to restore stability in the executive branch’s national security apparatus. In June, Trump formally gave Mattis “full authority” to determine troop levels in Afghanistan. Mattis and then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly even made a secret pact to babysit the president during his time in office, with one of the generals “remaining in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House,” according to the Associated Press.

The other prong of attack came from McMaster in what’s being characterized in conservative circles as a “purge” on the National Security Council of Trump loyalists handpicked by Steve Bannon to shape the president’s national security apparatus. On August 2nd, McMaster reportedly fired Senior Director for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Michael Flynn holdover reportedly protected by Jared Kushner and Bannon. Just a week before, McMaster fired top Middle East aide Army Colonel Derek Harvey, also a Flynn staffer, in favor of “his own guy” per Politico. And, on July 21st, McMaster ousted Director for Strategic Planning Rich Higgins. According to an August 3rd report in the Washington Free Beacon, McMaster isn’t done ousting Trump’s faction of Bannon loyalists.

This, however, may be a good thing:

It’s an institutional return to normalcy after months of far-right effort to radically transform decades of institutional memory. Bannon staked his role in the administration on the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” even going so far as establishing a “Strategic Initiatives Group,” a shadow forum within the executive branch designed to undermine the traditional NSC. (The SIG was dissolved after Bannon was booted from the NSC’s principals committee in April.) Cohen-Watnick, the now-former intelligence director, was implicated in collaborating with Representative Devin Nunes (R-California) in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. And Higgins was reportedly canned after publishing an unhinged memo claiming that Trump was “under sustained attack from subversive forces both within and outside the government … including globalists, bankers, the ‘deep state,’ and Islamists,” per The Atlantic.

McMaster’s NSC purge, taken in the context of Kelly’s crackdown on the Oval Office, reflects the exact strategy of containment that the latter discussed with Mattis in the early weeks of the administration. As Kelly is jousting with Trump’s political family (and, in some cases, his literal family), McMaster is cleaning house of the ideologues who feed Trump’s own quixotic impulses. All the while, Mattis and Dunford are working to keep America’s enemies at bay. Gone is the governmental inexperience and ideological blindness that marred the first six months of the Trump administration.

Now the generals are in charge:

Trump will remain ensconced in the Oval Office, and he will continue to clash with his generals… But just as Abraham Lincoln battled with George McClellan (and Barack Obama with “Runaway General” Stanley McChrystal), the generals have arrived to counterbalance their commander-in-chief – and they’re not going anywhere.

That’s a coup, and Peter Baker notes the resistance:

President Trump defended Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, his embattled national security adviser, on Friday in the face of a full-bore campaign by the nationalist wing of his political coalition accusing him of undermining the president’s agenda and calling for his dismissal.

General McMaster has angered the political right by pushing out several conservatives on the national security staff and cautioning against ripping up the nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama without a strategy for what comes next. His future has been in doubt amid speculation that Mr. Trump might send him to Afghanistan.

But after two days of unrelenting attacks on General McMaster by conservative activists and news sites, complete with the Twitter hashtag #FireMcMaster, the president weighed in to quash such talk. “General McMaster and I are working very well together,” he said in a statement emailed to The New York Times. “He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.”

Trump still loves his imaginary generals – winners, unpredictable, and not especially nice guys – but he never understood real generals. It’s that hyper-developed sense of duty, and they just won. He just lost. Someone has to save the country until the next election. Then the generals can stand down. Then it will be time for Irish whiskey.

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The Day Came

This wasn’t supposed to happen, but everyone knew it was going to happen, and now it has happened, and in fact it already happened:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began using a grand jury in federal court in Washington several weeks ago as part of his investigation of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.

The development is a sign that investigators continue to aggressively gather evidence in the case, and that Mueller is taking full control of a probe that predated him.

The day finally came, but no one should have been surprised:

In recent weeks and months, Mueller has been expanding the legal team working on the matter, and recently added Greg Andres, a longtime white-collar lawyer specializing in foreign bribery who previously worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Mueller’s investigation now includes a look at whether President Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James B. Comey, as well as deep dives into financial and other dealings of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Trump and Flynn and Manafort seem to have big targets on their backs now, and the White House offered only this:

Ty Cobb, whom Trump appointed as White House special counsel, said of the grand jury: “This is news to me, but it’s welcome news to the extent it suggests that it may accelerate the resolution of Mr. Mueller’s work. The White House has every interest in bringing this to a prompt and fair conclusion. As we’ve said in the past, we’re committed to cooperating fully with Mr. Mueller.”

They may have no other choice now:

Mueller has largely removed the original prosecutors from the case, replacing them with a formidable collection of legal talent and expertise in prosecuting national security, fraud and public corruption cases, arguing matters before the Supreme Court and assessing complicated legal questions.

But there is a caveat:

In federal cases, a grand jury is not necessarily an indication that an indictment is imminent or even likely. Instead, it is a powerful investigative tool that prosecutors use to compel witnesses to testify or force people or companies to turn over documents.

So be it, but compelling witnesses to testify and forcing people or companies to turn over documents is the big deal here. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s only bluster:

President Donald Trump downplayed “the Russia story” Thursday night at a rally in West Virginia, just hours after news broke that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.

“The Russia story is total fabrication,” Trump said Thursday night. “It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.”

Trump did not mention the grand jury Thursday at the rally, and instead fell back on old campaign rhetoric about his former rival.

“What the prosecutors should be looking at are Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails,” Trump said, to uproarious applause. “And they should be looking at the paid Russian speeches. And the owned Russian companies. Or look at the uranium that she sold that is now in the hands of very angry Russians.”

The crowd started their chant. “Lock her up!” That went on and on. Trump grinned. No one there was going to suggest that Hillary Clinton was kind of irrelevant now, now that she has returned to the obscurity she so richly deserves – even Democrats are relieved by her new obscurity. What the hell does she have to do with anything now?

That wasn’t the point:

“They can’t beat us at the voting booths, so they’re trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want,” Trump said at the rally. “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our constitution. I just hope the final determination is a truly honest one.”

That was the new message. Robert S. Mueller III is trying to cheat Real Americans – the good people. This is not about Trump. This is an assault on the good people in this country.

But as David Graham notes, this was about Trump:

Separately, CNN reported that Mueller’s probe has now expanded well past the 2016 election. “Sources described an investigation that has widened to focus on possible financial crimes, some unconnected to the 2016 elections, alongside the ongoing scrutiny of possible illegal coordination with Russian spy agencies and alleged attempts by President Donald Trump and others to obstruct the FBI investigation,” the report said, adding that investigators were combing over Trump’s business empire.

The CNN report adds detail to earlier reports from the Times and Bloomberg that the probe had widened to look at potential financial crimes. Mueller is said to be investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the election, business dealings of Trump and his associates, and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey, asking him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, and other moves.

That of course is crossing that “red line” that Trump drew:

Trump has threatened Mueller in an attempt to keep the investigation confined to the election. He suggested in an interview with The New York Times that he might fire Mueller if the probe moved beyond Russian interference. However, Mueller’s commission gives him broad latitude to pursue whatever crimes he comes across. If Trump tried to fire Mueller, it could set up a replay of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which President Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor, though only after his attorney general and his deputy both refused to do so and resigned. The incident is known as the beginning of the end for Nixon. Republican senators have warned Trump against firing Mueller, saying it would produce a political catastrophe.

That “red line” that Trump drew was clear. His business dealings were off limits. His tax returns were off limits. His hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding loans – his debts to foreign banks and foreign persons – were off limits. Look into any of that and Trump would pull a Nixon and fire Mueller.

It’s too late for that:

The news of a grand jury is perhaps less a surprise than the speed with which it was impaneled. It suggests that Mueller’s team has moved past an exploratory phase…

The veteran investigative journalist Murray Waas reported on Thursday at Vox that several top FBI officials were told they might be called to testify about potential obstruction of justice by the president, including Acting Director Andrew McCabe. “Two senior federal law enforcement officials have told me that the new revelations illustrate why they believe the potential case against Trump is stronger than outsiders have thought,” Waas wrote.

And there’s that damned meeting too:

For months, Trump steadfastly insisted that there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia. There were, however, unreported contacts between Russian officials and Sessions, Kushner, and Flynn; inquiries into contacts with Russian intelligence by Trump staffer Carter Page, an investigation Manafort’s finances and possible money-laundering; and several other threads.

In July, however, Donald Trump Jr. admitted to attending the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. Emails showed that Trump Jr. believed that Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom he met, was “Russian government lawyer” bearing damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The emails also stated that the Russian government backed Trump over Clinton. Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.” But he now says it was not what was said, and that he received no information. (Trump Jr. initially offered misleading and incomplete reports about the meeting before Times reporting drove him to release the emails.)

Since then, Trump has adopted a new line of argument, which is that if the meeting constituted collusion, it was not illegal, and that anyone would have done so. So far, this defense has been offered only in the court of public opinion. Mueller’s grand jury may offer Trump or some of his aides and family members the chance to make it in a court of law as well.

They may have to do that, because no one is standing with Trump:

Support is gathering behind a bipartisan push to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from potentially being fired by President Donald Trump.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, and Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, plan to introduce a measure Thursday that would bar the President from directly firing any special counsel – retroactive to Mueller’s appointment in May.

“The President would maintain the power to remove the special counsel, but we would just want to make sure that it had merit and have that back-end judicial process,” Tillis said Thursday morning on CNN’s “Newsroom.”

“And if there is a termination, we just want to make sure, through judicial review, that it was warranted,” he added.

No, it’s more than that:

The measure would also effectively shut down another avenue for firing Mueller – mandating that only an attorney general confirmed by the Senate would have the power to remove the special counsel.

Trump has openly blasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the federal Russia probe, leading to speculation he may try and find a new attorney general who would fire Mueller.

Tillis voiced support for Sessions Thursday, saying the attorney general is “doing a great job.” The Republican lawmaker also warned that if the bipartisan proposal passes through Congress and Trump decides to veto the legislation, “it means that we’d have work to do potentially override a veto.”

Sure, but they could override a veto given this:

The Senate blocked President Trump from being able to make recess appointments on Thursday as lawmakers leave Washington for their summer break.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), doing wrap up for the entire Senate, locked in nine “pro-forma” sessions – brief meetings that normally last roughly a minute.

The move, which requires the agreement of every senator, means the Senate will be in session every three business days throughout the August recess.

Every senator agreed. Trump will not be able to fire Jeff Sessions and make a recess appointment of someone who would fire Mueller immediately – perhaps his daughter Tiffany, who just started at Georgetown Law School, just to rub it in. That’s not going to happen, given the new sheriff in town:

New White House chief of staff John Kelly assured Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a weekend phone call that his job was safe, Trump administration officials said.

The call was first reported by The Associated Press. Kelly took the job Friday.

The officials said Kelly told Sessions to keep up his initiatives at the department and that President Donald Trump’s disappointment wouldn’t lead to his firing, as Trump has occasionally suggested. The call showed that Kelly sees himself as an empowered chief of staff, but Trump could surely change his mind, associates said.

Trump could change his mind. Kelly would resign. Congress would turn on Trump. Trump cannot change his mind. The price would be too high.

As for the new grand jury, that’s simply bad news:

“It is a clear sign that this investigation is escalating, and it likely means we are going to see a parade of White House staffers and other Trump associates coming in and out of the courthouse in downtown Washington,” said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman under President Barack Obama.

“While testimony is secret, you can’t hide who is coming in and out of that courthouse,” Miller said, “and it will put tremendous pressure on White House staffers who will be wondering what their friends and associates testified to behind closed doors.”

Andy Wright, a former associate counsel to President Barack Obama who is now a professor at Savannah Law School, agreed that grand juries “largely operate in secret so we won’t hear much from Mueller’s team.”

“We will, however, likely hear from witnesses brought before the grand jury or parties the grand jury subpoenas from time to time,” Wright said. “While there is no guarantee Mueller will seek indictments, this is a significant moment in the overall Special Counsel’s Russia investigation.”

Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas who specializes in national-security law, told the Wall Street Journal that the grand jury was “a further sign that there is a long-term, large-scale series of prosecutions being contemplated and being pursued by the special counsel.”

That’s actually in progress:

Reuters reported that the jury had already issued subpoenas related to the June 2016 meeting between Trump’s eldest son and a Russian lawyer with connections to the Kremlin. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, also attended the meeting.

“It’s significant that the grand jury has issued subpoenas regarding Trump, Jr.’s meeting with Russians,” said William Yeomans, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General who spent 26 years at the Justice Department. “That suggests Mueller is looking into crimes associated with the allegations of collusion.”

It may also mean that Mueller is looking at the misleading or incomplete statements issued by Trump Jr. about the meeting “as part of an inquiry into obstruction of justice,” Yeomans said. “The investigation into possible criminal conduct has obviously taken a big step forward.”

Donald Trump actually dictated his son’s original misleading or incomplete statement. That’s the bigger problem, and there’s this:

Citing people familiar with the investigation, CNN reported on Thursday that “federal investigators exploring whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian spies have seized on Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russia as one of the most fertile avenues for moving their probe forward.”

The investigators are apparently examining Trump Organization financial records and looking at who purchased Trump-branded real estate in the past six years, according to CNN. They’re also probing the backgrounds of people like the Russian-Azerbaijani oligarch Aras Agalarov, who helped bring Trump’s Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.

So the day finally came, but this obscured the other big news of the day:

The Washington Post has obtained transcripts of two conversations President Trump had with foreign leaders: one with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and another with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The transcripts were prepared by the White House but have not been released. The Post is publishing reproductions rather than original documents in order to protect sources. The reproductions below also include minor spelling and grammatical mistakes that appeared in the documents.

The raw transcripts follow, and to be clear, this was a leak of classified documents. Such things should not be made public. Diplomacy is impossible if either party feels that off-the-cuff statements, that are not yet policy or official positions, will be in the newspapers the next day, or the next month. No one would say anything – but it seems someone in the administration wanted America to know that their president is a dangerous jerk. Sometimes, as with the Pentagon Papers long ago, a felony is also a public service.

That’s why Jonathan Chait writes that Australia’s Prime Minister Slowly Realizes Trump Is a Complete Idiot:

At issue in the conversation is a deal to settle 1,250 refugees who have been detained by Australia in the United States. I did not pay any attention to the details of this agreement before reading the transcript. By the time I was halfway through it my brain could not stop screaming at Trump for his failure to understand what Turnbull was telling him.

Australia has a policy of refusing to accept refugees who arrive by boat. The reason, as Turnbull patiently attempts to explain several times, is that it believes giving refuge to people who arrive by boat would encourage smuggling and create unsafe passage with a high risk of deaths at sea. But it had a large number of refugees who had arrived by sea, living in difficult conditions, whom Australia would not resettle (for fear of encouraging more boat trafficking) but whom it did not want to deport, either. The United States government agreed under President Obama to vet 1,250 of these refugees and accept as many of them as it deemed safe.

In the transcript, Trump is unable to absorb any of these facts. He calls the refugees “prisoners,” and repeatedly brings up the Cuban boatlift (in which Castro dumped criminals onto Florida). He is unable to absorb Turnbull’s explanation that they are economic refugees, not from conflict zones, and that the United States has the ability to turn away any of them it deems dangerous.

Some of that went like this:

Trump: I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now. They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.

Turnbull: I would not be so sure about that. They are basically…

Trump: Well, maybe you should let them out of prison.

They aren’t in prison, and this goes on and on, until this:

Trump gives up asking about the policy and just starts venting about the terribleness of deals in general:

“I do not know what he [Obama] got out of it. We never get anything out of it – START Treaty, the Iran deal. I do not know where they find these people to make these stupid deals. I am going to get killed on this thing.”

Shortly afterward, the call ends in brusque fashion, and Turnbull presumably begins drinking heavily.

Paul Waldman covers the other call:

We don’t often get a direct and unfiltered window into what the president (or any politician for that matter) says and thinks behind closed doors, which is why it can be so fascinating when something like the transcripts of President Trump’s conversations with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finds its way into public view. Some are looking at the conversation with Peña Nieto and saying, “Aha, we knew the wall was always a scam!” – which is not an unreasonable reaction. But of course it was always a scam; perhaps more interesting is that Trump would admit it so openly to a foreign leader – and that he himself is in no way deluded about it.

Trump plainly knew that he’d never get Mexico to pay for a wall (if it ever gets built), even as he was telling crowds that they would. And he cared deeply about it, because he understood just how powerful a symbol it had become for his followers – which meant that he wanted to keep the illusion alive for as long as possible — a project he attempted without success to get Peña Nieto to help him with.

This too was awkward:

At multiple points, Peña Nieto says that everyone should just stop talking about the wall, but Trump resists. Trump talks about tariffs he wants to impose on Mexican goods, because “I have been telling this to every group of 50,000 people or 25,000 people – because no one got people in their rallies as big as I did. But I have been saying I wanted to tax people that treated us unfairly at the border, and Mexico is treating us unfairly.”

Then he says this:

“The only thing I will ask you though is on the wall, you and I both have a political problem. My people stand up and say, ‘Mexico will pay for the wall’ and your people probably say something in a similar but slightly different language. But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to.”

Trump then suggests a PR strategy for deflecting questions about the issue:

“They are going to say, ‘who is going to pay for the wall, Mr. President?’ to both of us, and we should both say, ‘we will work it out.’ It will work out in the formula somehow. As opposed to you saying, ‘we will not pay’ and me saying, ‘we will not pay.’ But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important talk about. But in terms of dollars – or pesos – it is the least important thing. I know how to build very inexpensively, so it will be much lower than these numbers I am being presented with, and it will be a better wall and it will look nice. And it will do the job.”

Peña Nieto again insists that Mexico absolutely will not pay for the wall, to which Trump replies, “But you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.” Peña Nieto then says, “And for Mexico, it is also an issue that goes beyond the economic situation because this is an issue related to the dignity of Mexico and goes to the national pride of my country.”

Waldman is appalled:

Trump knows very well that Peña Nieto is right – this is absolutely about dignity. And forcing Mexico to give up its dignity is the whole point and always was.

I’m not saying that Trump doesn’t actually want to cut down on undocumented immigration. He certainly does. But why was it so important that Mexico pay for the wall? Why did Trump do that call-and-response with his rabid crowds about it? “And who’s going to pay for it?” he’d ask. “Mexico!” they’d shout.

The reason is that making Mexico pay for the wall would be an act of domination, humiliating them so we could show that we were in control.

That’s the whole point of all of this:

This idea lies at the very heart of Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters, particularly men. He understood that those people no longer felt in control – their economic opportunities had dwindled, their communities had declined, they felt deeply uncomfortable in a country growing more diverse all the time and a bunch of liberals are telling them to check their privilege. Trump promised them not just that he would turn back the clock and Make America Great Again, but also that he would empower them to strike back at those who had made them feel small.

That’s our guy:

Keep in mind that Trump’s entire worldview is shaped by the idea of domination and submission. Every interaction – between people or countries – is a zero-sum contest in which there’s a winner and a loser. If you aren’t the winner then you’re the loser, the chump, the one everyone’s laughing at. It’s why whenever he talks about trade he seems obsessed with the idea of other countries “laughing at us,” as though China filling up our dollar stores with trinkets causes us endless public humiliation. The idea of Mexico being forced against its will to pay for our wall was a potent symbol of America standing tall again, as Trump knew it would be for many people who felt they were no longer standing tall in their own lives.

That means the wall is not the point:

Mexico is never going to pay for it. But Trump knows he can’t tell his supporters that, because as he told President Peña Nieto, “psychologically, it means something.”

It’s the same with the Russians messing with our last election of course, whether or not the Trump folks helped them with that. Either way, psychologically, that means something too. If they did mess with our election, that makes Donald Trump the chump, the one everyone’s laughing at.

Donald Trump is making sure that day never comes – but that day just came. That wasn’t supposed to happen, but everyone knew it was going to happen, and now it has happened. The day came.

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