In a Strange Land

It’s an oddly quiet evening here in Hollywood. It’s raining. That giddy guy from Pittsburgh should be singing in the rain – but it’s not like that – and that was shot on a soundstage down at MGM in Culver City in 1952 – long ago. It’s not like that. It’s just rain. It’s kind of dismal, and President Trump is in town. He finally made it to California, which Hillary Clinton carried two-to-one against him, where no Republican has been elected to statewide office in a decade, where there’s not much of a Republican Party left. He’s over in Beverly Hills at a private fundraiser, trying to cheer up those who now feel like strangers in a strange land. They’re not going to take back the state. He’ll raise a few million dollars to get himself reelected, if he can. They’ll help with that. That’s the best they can hope for – and it’s raining.

This trip was misbegotten. President Trump flew into San Diego to inspect prototypes for his Big Beautiful Wall – which he says California desperately wants. Everyone out here thinks it’s stupid. There are a hundred other ways people slip into the country – and the economy out here, and everywhere else, needs a lot of those people. He blasted Jerry Brown – a nice guy, he said, but a terrible governor. The state is falling apart. It isn’t – the state is running a surplus and everything is working just fine. Everyone hates the out-of-control high taxes. No, voters out here approved those taxes. People and companies are leaving the state, or soon will be. That isn’t happening either. Affordable housing is an issue. The homeless are an issue. California supplies more than half of the nation’s produce and climate change is about to put an end to that. There are problems, but Trump mentioned none of those. He ranted about high taxes and too much regulation – and then he hopped back on Air Force One for the short hop to Los Angeles, and then a short hop in a helicopter to Santa Monica Airport, and then the massive motorcade up to some mansion just off Mulholland Drive. He was the stranger in the strange land.

California, however, isn’t the rest of America. The rest of America is becoming a strange land, with a strange man in charge. It’s chaos out there. This was the day that Donald Trump fired his secretary of state, announced he would move the head of the CIA into that position, and he would name the second in command at the CIA to run the CIA – the woman who ran the secret “black site” torture operation in Thailand for Dick Cheney and George Bush and did what she was told – she helped destroy all evidence of what the CIA had done there. At the same time Donald Trump’s personal assistant was suddenly perp-walked out of the White House – something to do with some sort of major financial crime that no one will specify – and was immediately hired by the Trump reelection team to work for them – and the Stormy Daniels thing got worse and worse. The porn start won’t keep quiet. And Stephen Hawking died – but that had nothing to do with Trump. At the end of the evening, events just south of Pittsburgh had everything to do with Trump:

A special election for a U.S. House seat was too close to call late Tuesday as Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone were separated by several hundred votes in a race that had become a test of President Trump’s political clout.

With thousands of absentee and provisional ballots outstanding, Lamb earned 49.8 percent of votes cast and Saccone earned 49.6 percent, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press, which said the race was too close to project a winner.

A recount is possible if the candidates are separated by 0.5 percentage points or less.

Shortly before midnight, Saccone told his supporters that “it’s not over yet.”

A little more than an hour later, Lamb took the stage at his party in Canonsburg to declare victory.

It was over, and Trump hadn’t helped:

Lamb, 33, had waged an energetic campaign in the district that Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016 but that opened up after the Republican incumbent was felled by scandal. Republicans cited that scandal, along with the lackluster campaign of their nominee, Rick Saccone, to minimize the closeness of the race. The district itself will disappear this year, thanks to a court decision that struck down a Republican-drawn map.

But led by the White House, Republicans had elevated the race to a high-stakes referendum on the president and the GOP. Trump made two appearances with Saccone, including a Saturday-night rally in the district, and his son Donald Trump Jr. stumped with Saccone on Monday. The president repeatedly linked his brand to Saccone.

“The Economy is raging, at an all-time high, and is set to get even better,” the president tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!”

It seems that wasn’t the issue:

After casting her vote in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, dental hygienist Janet Dellana said she had been outraged to see Trump call for arming teachers instead of limiting access to semiautomatic weapons after the deadly school shooting in Florida.

“He flip-flops on everything, but in the end, he caters to the extreme right,” said Dellana, 64. “I am a registered Republican, but as this party continues to cater to the extreme right, they push me left.”

Someone was feeling like a stranger in a strange land, and there was this:

On the ground, unions ran an aggressive turnout operation, winning back many members who had backed Trump for president. Lamb’s campaign focused on preserving Medicare and Social Security, and warning that Republican policies would put them at risk. The United Mine Workers of America, which had sat out the 2016 election, endorsed Lamb when the Democrat promised to support legislation that would fully fund their pensions.

People want their country back. They want the strangeness to end, and that business with Rex Tillerson was strange, as David Frum notes:

The White House’s account of the Tillerson firing collapsed within minutes.

Senior administration officials told outlets including the Washington Post and CNN that Tillerson had been told he would be dismissed on Friday, March 9.

Within the hour, the State Department issued a statement insisting that Tillerson “had every intention of remaining” and “did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason.” CNN reported that Tillerson had received a call from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Friday night indicating that he would be replaced that did not specify timing; a senior White House official told the network that it was Trump himself who had suddenly decided to pull the trigger on Tuesday morning. Tillerson learned of his actual firing the same way everybody else did: By reading about it on Twitter shortly after 8:44 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 13.

This was brutal and uncourteous, but Frum notes the timing:

On March 12, Tillerson had backed the British government’s accusation that Russia was culpable for a nerve-agent attack on United Kingdom soil. If Tillerson had been fired March 9, then his words of support for Britain could not explain his firing three days before. But if the White House was lying about the timing, it could be lying about the motive.

And since it now seems all but certain that the White House was lying about the timing, it looks more probable that it was lying about the motive too.

That suspicion was accelerated by the president’s words to the White House press corps before stepping aboard Marine One – “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

That is not support for Britain. It is the direct opposite.

Trump sides with Russia again:

Britain and the United States share intelligence information fully, freely, and seamlessly. It’s inconceivable that the U.S. government has not already seen all the information that Theresa May saw before she rose in the House of Commons to accuse Russia.

If the U.S. government had a serious concern about the reliability of that information, it would have expressed that concern directly and privately to the U.K. government before May spoke. But the U.S. had no such concern – that’s why the now-fired secretary of state and the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom both endorsed May’s words. When Trump raises doubts about the facts, about American agreement with its British ally, about the accuracy of the British accusation against Russia, Trump is not expressing good-faith uncertainty about imperfect information. Trump is rejecting the consensus view of the U.K. and U.S. intelligence communities about an act of Russian aggression – and, if his past behavior is any indication, preparing the way for his own determination to do nothing.

It echoes the approach he took toward Russian intervention in the U.S. election to help elect him in 2016: Feign uncertainty about what is not uncertain in order to justify inaction.

Frum smells a rat:

Yesterday, the Republicans on the House intelligence committee announced that they had concluded the investigation of the Russian interference – and would soon publish a report acquitting Trump of collusion. Bad luck for them to release the report on the very day that Trump again demonstrated that something is very, very wrong in the Trump-Russia relationship. It’s possible to imagine innocent explanations. And it’s easy to list the plausible explanations. Ominously for the western alliance and the security of the United States, those two sets no longer overlap at all.

Perhaps the Russians have something on Trump, and there was this:

The news that President Trump had abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while he was on an overseas trip hit Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, as details trickled out throughout the day about the unclear circumstances of the ouster and what will happen in the weeks ahead.

“The State Department is in chaos,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) exclaimed to reporters, shaking his head as he stepped on the escalator in the Capitol’s basement.

Reacting to the news about Tillerson and another top State Department official fired Tuesday for contradicting the White House’s version of events, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) quipped: “At the rate this administration is hemorrhaging staff, pretty soon the President’s barber is going to play a big role in American foreign policy.”

They too felt like strangers in a strange land:

The unceremonious ouster is rankling Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill, even those who were not great fans of Tillerson’s leadership.

“It’s hard to believe that a president would be so irresponsible to fire the Secretary of State while the Secretary is overseas representing our country,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) vented to reporters Tuesday. “It’s just unfathomable that anyone would think that’s appropriate.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), while praising Tillerson’s likely replacement Pompeo, voiced concerns about the morning’s upheaval.

“It’s not a good sign when you’re fired by Twitter,” he said. “I mean, c’mon. We ought to have a better process than that. That’s just not a very respectful way to do it.”

But it had to happen:

Republican allies of President Trump were unsurprisingly supportive of the sudden cabinet shuffle, noting that it followed months of tension between Trump and Tillerson. The President repeatedly and publicly contradicted and humiliated his secretary of state, while Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning months ago.

“I think it’s important that the President and Secretary of State are on the same wavelength and I think the President now will be,” the normally tight-lipped Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) told reporters Tuesday, adding that he hopes the Senate will act swiftly to confirm Mike Pompeo to the role. “We have not just the North Korea summit coming up in the next two to three months, but the next decision about the Iran certification in two months. It’s important that the President has the team he wants in place before those two events happen.”

But that’s an issue, as is that woman:

On Iran, Pompeo is expected to support Trump’s desire to terminate the nuclear agreement crafted by the Obama administration – a break from Tillerson, who had warned ending the agreement would be extremely dangerous.

“I think it means that the likelihood of withdrawing from the agreement goes up, if you don’t change the sunset clause and deal with some other deficiencies,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters. Graham also expressed unease about the woman tapped to replace Pompeo at the CIA – Gina Haspel – whose record includes overseeing a CIA black site that waterboarded detainees during the George W. Bush administration.

“My main concern is: does she now know that those techniques are not allowed?” Graham said. “At the time, there was doubt. Today, there is no doubt. That will drive my thinking more than anything else.”

Lawmakers noted that it’s uncertain whether Haspel or Pompeo can muster the 60 votes necessary for their Senate confirmations. Even Democrats who voted for Pompeo’s confirmation to lead the CIA last year now say they have concerns.

Everyone has concerns, and the Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Damian Paletta get to the heart of the matter:

For much of his tumultuous tenure, President Trump has made impulsive, gut-level pronouncements – about dealing with Democrats on immigration, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and supporting stricter gun control – only to be walked back by his more cautious staff.

Those days, it appears, are over.

In the past two weeks, Trump has ordered tariffs on steel and aluminum imports over the fierce objections of his top economic adviser and agreed to an unprecedented meeting with North Korea’s dictator despite concerns from national security aides. On Tuesday, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had forged a tight working relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to try to rein in some of Trump’s most impetuous decisions.

That’s trouble:

Trump’s moves have shaken and alarmed a West Wing staff that fears the president has felt less restrained about acting on his whims amid the recent departures of several longtime aides, including communications director Hope Hicks and staff secretary Rob Porter. Late Monday, Trump’s personal assistant John McEntee, who had served from the earliest days of his campaign, was fired after losing his security clearance, further depleting the ranks of those the president feels he can trust.

White House allies in Washington suggested that Trump has been liberated to manage his administration as he did his private business, making decisions that feel good in the moment because he believes in his ability to win – regardless of whether those decisions are backed by rigorous analysis or supported by top ­advisers.

This, they said, is the real Trump – freewheeling by nature, decisive in the moment, unafraid to chart his own course.

And maybe this had to happen:

Other people who have worked with Trump said his recent moves are an indication that he is concerned with the state of his presidency.

“When he’s under pressure is when he tends to do this impulsive stuff,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. “That’s what I saw in the business. When he began to have pressure with debts, when the [Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City] was underperforming, is when he began acting very erratically.”

O’Donnell pointed to the increasing pressure on Trump with the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the scandal surrounding Trump’s alleged affair with a pornographic film star. “I think he likes the vision of himself being in control,” O’Donnell said. “I doubt he realizes the consequences of North Korea, just like he didn’t realize the consequences in business of walking in and firing someone at the Taj without thinking about it. It’s Trump.”

And one thing leads to another:

Critics warned that Trump was overseeing a massive consolidation of groupthink within the West Wing, driving out top advisers who have challenged him on national security and economic decisions and elevating those who confirm his protectionist leanings – a signal, perhaps, to Cabinet members that they must fall in line or be the next to go…

Attention is now focused on the fate of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has had a rocky relationship with the president and has battled an internal power struggle for months.

And if McMaster goes, all bets are off:

Eliot Cohen, who served as a State Department counselor in the George W. Bush administration, said Tillerson was the worst secretary of state in recent memory. But Cohen, who led one of the two “never Trump” letters signed by dozens of national security experts during the campaign, said Trump’s intent to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson will lead to even less internal debate.

Tillerson had dismissed the idea of direct talks with North Korea just days before Trump announced a summit with Kim Jong Un. By contrast, Pompeo on Sunday lavished praise on Trump’s strategy with Pyongyang.

“We have a very similar thought process,” Trump said of the CIA chief.

“This means conversations will be more of a never-never land than they already are,” Cohen said. “You will hear nothing faintly resembling candid disagreements.”

And this has been never-never land:

On Thursday, Trump decided on the spot during a 45-minute meeting with South Korean officials in the Oval Office that he would accept an invitation from Kim to meet for talks – stunning senior aides, including Mattis and McMaster, who warned about moving too quickly.

Jon Wolfsthal, who served as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said most presidents would have convened an interagency meeting with the relevant federal agencies before making such a momentous decision.

“A president could hear from his Cabinet about whether it was worth the risk and, if it was worth the risk, how they would make the announcement, who to inform first,” Wolfsthal said.

It didn’t work that way:

Trump asked his South Korean interlocutors to announce the news in the West Wing driveway as he hastily tried to reach the leaders of Japan and China. Tillerson, who was traveling in Africa, was represented at the Oval Office meeting by a deputy.

The following day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sowed confusion by telling reporters that the meeting was contingent on Pyongyang taking active steps to denuclearize, before one of Sanders’s aides later clarified by saying there were no preconditions to the summit.

This is not a world anyone knows, even worldwide:

The turmoil has unsettled U.S. allies and rivals across the globe.

“I think the Chinese are reeling from this presidency,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

She noted that Beijing has sought to develop ties to both Tillerson and Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has lost standing amid questions about his inability to gain a security clearance and financial debts tied to his family’s real estate business.

“The Chinese ambassador has been going around quietly seeing very senior former officials and asking them who to talk to,” Glaser said. “How can they influence this administration? Every day is a new surprise for them.”

Every day is a new surprise for everyone. We’re all strangers in a strange land now. And it’s raining. And singing in the rain won’t help at all.

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Always Ending in Farce

No one knows what Donald Trump will do next. He may plant a big sloppy wet kiss on the Kim fellow, or one on Vladimir Putin – a real one this time. To save our coal industry he may issue an executive order that all ships in our navy, including the submarines, run on coal now – lump coal – like in the good old days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet that awed the world. He will get his giant military parade too – scaled back a bit. The rows and rows of big tanks would rip up the streets in Washington – but he will have his “salute to the strongman” parade – and no one knows what one of his supporters will do next. One of them paid off a porn star to keep her quiet. Others explain that he doesn’t really mean what he says in all those unhinged tweets – and then he says he did mean just what he said, and they again say no, he doesn’t mean that at all. They have to manage his angry outbursts. The man does watch four to eight hours of cable news and gossip each day – his executive time – and that sets him off. He sees insults where there are none, or minor insults that anyone else would shrug off with a confident laugh. He shrugs nothing off – he hits back ten times harder – leaving him little time to conduct the nation’s business.

That’s a problem. No one knows quite where he stands on any issue. Outrage turns to enthusiastic support. Enthusiastic support turns to outrage. That’s a matter of who talked to him last – the high school kids who survived the recent mass shooting or the NRA – people with sad stories of those “dreamers” or Stephen Miller – and Robert Mueller is closing in. He lashes out. Stormy Daniels is closing in. He lashes out. He can’t help himself. He has one response. This has become a farce.

That word fits. That’s a word from theater. There’s the classic farce – full of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, and disguises and mistaken identities, and lots of clever and sophisticated word play, and a bit of sexual innuendo – and a fast-paced plot that only gets faster, usually ending in some sort of elaborate chase around a parlor or bedroom. There is no deep inner meaning. There are stock characters – the miser, the prig, the blowhard, the clueless husband and the oversexed and far too willing wife. They all get what’s coming to them – played for laughs. Farce is all about the joy of language and the silliness of people.

Georges Feydeau wrote the ultimate farce – A Flea in Her Ear – but that’s best in French. The ultimate farce in English is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – old, but cool. Modern farces are too dark and nasty – Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is one of those. Stick with Wilde. Algernon gets off some good lines – “And really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”

That might have stung, but farces are not political, and there’s a bit of history to that:

The Walpole administration initiated the infamous Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 heavily censuring British stages. After the Act had been passed, all plays were censured and adapted before they could be staged in one of the only two ‘licensed’ playhouses, Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Theatre.

Robert Walpole – who had been mercilessly mocked by Jonathan Swift and others for decades – was no fool. He wasn’t going to be mocked on stage too. All governments can be farcical at times, but keep that out of the theater – and it was kept out. There are few political farces. No one objected. There was enough other silliness. There was plenty to go around – and then Donald Trump came along. He brought farce back to government.

Who needs the stage? Now it’s this:

Even as the special counsel expands his inquiry and pursues criminal charges against at least four Trump associates, House Intelligence Committee Republicans said on Monday that their investigation had found no evidence of collusion between Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia to sway the 2016 election.

Representative K. Michael Conaway, the Texas Republican who is leading the investigation, said committee Republicans agreed with the conclusions of American intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered with the election, but they broke with the agencies on one crucial point: that the Russians had favored Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

“The bottom line: The Russians did commit active measures against our election in ’16, and we think they will do that in the future,” Mr. Conaway said. But, he added, “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”

In short, they were just messing with us. They didn’t care who won or lost, and they were bad at it – changing nothing. Michael Conaway is the clueless husband in the farce – nothing happened – his wife isn’t messing around on the side – and of course sent out an all caps tweet. See! No collusion! Told ya so!

Others disagreed:

The announcement brought an abrupt end to one of two remaining investigations into the topic on Capitol Hill and quickly provoked sharp objections from committee Democrats, who have warned Republicans not to close the matter before the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is done with his work.

In a statement on Monday evening, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, lamented the decision, saying that the committee had put partisan politics over fulsome fact-finding and had failed to serve American voters at a key moment in history.

“By ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the majority has placed the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country,” he said. “And history will judge its actions harshly.”

He was not alone:

American intelligence officials concluded in January 2017 that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” and pivoted from trying to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton to developing “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the agencies stood by their work and would review the committee’s findings.

The House Intelligence Committee Republicans believe the Russians, not our guys:

“We found no evidence of collusion. We found perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings,” Mr. Conaway said during a briefing with reporters on Monday afternoon. “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take this series of inadvertent contacts with each other, or meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of fictional page-turner spy thriller.”

There was bad judgment. There were inappropriate meetings. There was nothing else, but there was:

Several witnesses thought to be central to the investigation never came before the panel, including Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; Mr. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates; Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; and Mr. Trump’s former campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, all of whom are under indictment by the special counsel.

Others, including George Nader, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates with links to current and former Trump aides, only recently came to the committee’s attention.

They’d have none of that:

The investigation had made little forward progress since December, committee members said. Only three witnesses have been brought in for questioning this year – a drastic reduction in pace compared to earlier months.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats on the committee spent a month locked in an extraordinary dispute over a secret Republican memorandum that accused top FBI and Justice Department officials of abusing their powers to spy on one of Mr. Trump’s former campaign advisers.

Republicans released the document over the objections of the Justice Department and the FBI, which warned in a rare public statement that it was dangerously misleading, and many used the document to argue that the entire Russia inquiry had been tainted by anti-Trump bias from the start.

Democrats eventually wrote and released their own counter-memo, drawn from the same underlying material, to rebut the Republican document. They are likely to write their own final report, as well, outlining questions that remain unanswered.

This has all the elements of a farce, in one door and out the other, and there’s this:

In a sign of how badly relations between the two sides have broken down, Republicans on the committee briefed reporters on their initial findings on Monday before notifying their Democratic partners what was coming.

Some Democrats have signaled they would like to reopen the investigation under a Schiff chairmanship if the party wins control of the House in November’s midterm elections.

Meanwhile the Senate Intelligence Committee is chugging along, with everyone getting along just fine, and Mueller is chugging along too, closing in. This was a panic-move. The guys decided to shout – “There’s nothing going on!” That’s always the funniest line in any farce. The audience sees exactly what is going on.

Others saw that too:

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Monday that “there is evidence” showing the Russians attempted to help Trump during the 2016 presidential election, contradicting a draft report from the panel…

[CNN interviewer Erin] Burnett pointed out that “the intelligence community had said” Moscow’s intention “was to hurt Hillary Clinton,” and that the Kremlin “wanted to explicitly help Donald Trump.” Rooney responded: “Yes, I believe there’s evidence of everything that you just said.”

Still, the farce had to end:

Rooney argued that the investigation needed to end because the committee was losing its credibility. “We’ve gone completely off the rails and now we are just basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day’s news,” Rooney said. “We’ve lost all credibility and we are going to issue probably two different reports, unfortunately.”

Kevin Drum adds this:

Do I even need to tell you that Rooney is retiring this year? It’s pretty amazing what Republicans are willing to say once they decide not to run for reelection.

And that’s that. No more need be said, because there was another farce to consider:

White House officials were alarmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ struggle to answer basic questions about the nation’s schools and failure to defend the administration’s newly proposed school safety measures during a tour of television interviews Sunday and Monday, according to two sources familiar with their reaction.

Though DeVos was sworn in to her Cabinet position 13 months ago, she stumbled her way through a pointed “60 Minutes” interview with CBS’ Lesley Stahl Sunday night and was unable to defend her belief that public schools can perform better when funding is diverted to the expansion of public charter schools and private school vouchers. At one point, she admitted she hasn’t “intentionally” visited underperforming schools.

Lesley Stahl asked if she didn’t think she really should visit those schools. DeVos said maybe she could. It seems she hadn’t thought about that, but that wasn’t all:

Things worsened as DeVos continued her cable television tour Monday morning. The White House released its proposals for school safety measures after a shooting in Florida killed 17 people. Part of the proposal includes a task force to examine ways to prevent future mass shootings, headed by DeVos. Although the proposals don’t include raising the age limit to purchase firearms from 18 to 21 – as President Donald Trump once suggested – DeVos told Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “Today” show that “everything is on the table.”

“The plan is a first step in a more lengthy process,” DeVos said, adding that she does not think that arming teachers with assault weapons would be “an appropriate thing.”

This won’t be a fast and decisive thing, as Trump had promised, and she went the other way on guns:

“I don’t think assault weapons carried in schools carried by any school personnel is the appropriate thing,” DeVos said. “But again, I think this is an issue that is best decided at the local level by communities and by states.”

“The point is that schools should have this tool if they choose to use the tool. Communities should have the tools, states should have the tool, but nobody should be mandated to do it,” she said.

By that time Trump was tearing his orange hair out, and he might be bald soon:

DeVos is just the latest member of Trump’s Cabinet to come under scrutiny. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt were all scolded by officials from the White House counsel’s office and the Cabinet liaison after a series of embarrassing and questionable ethical behavior at their respective agencies.

Things aren’t going well, but this woman is special:

This isn’t the first time DeVos has made headlines. She also struggled to answer education questions during her contentious confirmation hearing before the Senate last January. At one point, she told Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy that some schools may require guns to fight off grizzly bears.

“I will refer back to Sen. (Mike) Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies,” she had said.

She spoke of “potential grizzlies” in all seriousness. Oscar Wilde wrote this scene, but she got the job:

In the end, Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie to confirm her nomination, making her the first Cabinet nominee in history to require a tie-breaking vote by the vice president to be confirmed.

That assured this farce, and Dana Milbank has a bit of fun with this:

Her interview with Lesley Stahl of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” broadcast Sunday night, is being mocked as the most disastrous televised tête-à-tête since Palin met Couric.

But this unabashed ignorance is DeVos’ hidden genius – and precisely why she is a perfect choice to be Trump’s secretary of education.

Whenever DeVos speaks, it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished…

All this proves that it is sheer (if perhaps unintentional) genius to have DeVos, who married into the Amway fortune, in her role in the Trump administration. If this is the caliber of the top education official in the land, it hardly speaks well for getting an education. People could quite reasonably conclude that education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and they wouldn’t go to all the trouble of attending school.

And that may be the whole point:

As it happens, this is exactly what Trump needs to secure the future of his political movement. For Trump, the fewer people who get an education, the better off he will be. Exit polls showed a huge education gap in the 2016 election. College graduates favored Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points, while those without college degrees favored Trump by eight points. That 17-point gap was “by far the widest” dating to 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.

The danger for Trump is more Americans are going to college. The National Center for Education Statistics, part of DeVos’ Education Department, predicts enrollment of full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, up 38 percent between 2000 and 2014, will climb an additional 15 percent by 2025.

Thankfully, DeVos is doing all she can to combat this noxious scourge of people going to school. DeVos, who once said traditional public education is a “dead end,” is proving by example as the nation’s top educator that education generally is a dead end.

Snark seems appropriate here – this is a farce after all – but Helaine Olen sees no farce:

It’s one of the marks of our Second Gilded Age that wealth is viewed in and of itself as an achievement, one so stupendous it grants the holder the right to opine on all sorts of topics about which they know very little or nothing. As a trend, this has been with us for some time, but it has become worse under the Trump administration, where the wealthiest man ever elected to the White House has appointed the wealthiest Cabinet in history.

And then there’s Betsy DeVos:

All in all, it was a wretched performance. But why would we expect it to be anything else? An heiress to one fortune and the wife to the heir of another, a product of private schools who chose to educate her children in a similar fashion, DeVos’ qualifications for the job of education secretary were never more than those of a wealthy (and not particularly well-informed) hobbyist whose pet cause was the promotion of charter schools as a solution to a problem she had limited personal experience with.

But DeVos is hardly alone, whether it comes to the Trump administration, educational policy circles or larger American culture. The idea that wealth and its companion, business success, in and of themselves bestow on their possessors greater wisdom and insight into all manner of social, political and economic problems is something that has assumed greater and greater prominence in popular culture and political circles, really since the 1980s, when CEOs and Wall Street titans were routinely profiled as all but heroes. Partly as a result, we’ve seen people such as Mark Cuban, Howard Schultz and Sheryl Sandberg held up as plausible candidates for president based on little more than their business track record.

This is particularly true in education. Nowhere has deference to billionaires operating far outside their area of expertise been more pronounced than in this field.

Olen has examples of that:

Everyone from Bill and Melinda Gates to Mark Zuckerberg to numerous hedge fund millionaires and billionaires have attempted to take on the project of improving American public schools, with mixed results at best. Zuckerberg, famously, blew through $100 million attempting to improve the schools in Newark, despite having known almost nothing about education.

But the Trump administration has taken this worship of wealth for wealth’s sake to a new level. Trump – again, the wealthiest man ever elected president, who appointed the wealthiest Cabinet and administration in American history – frequently cited his own wealth as a reason to vote for him, saying it would allow him to act in the best interest of voters because he didn’t need money.

Trump has also explicitly cited wealth as a key qualification for his Cabinet picks. “I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump explained in 2016. “It’s no different than a great baseball player or a great golfer.”

Actually, yes, it is. DeVos’ performance Sunday night is proof of that.

And that leaves only farce:

On policy, Trump often seems like a dilettante who thinks his pronouncements carry weight simply because he spent so many years giving orders in the private sector. He contradicts himself constantly and often seems, to put it gently, less-than-well-informed.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Trump didn’t realize – or perhaps didn’t care – that DeVos was manifestly unqualified to head up education policy for the United States. But if there were any doubt among anyone else, Sunday night’s performance should have finally put an end to the idea that wealth is a qualification for anyone to weigh in on – never mind have actual authority over – areas in which they have no expertise.

But there’s one silver lining:

Perhaps demonstrating this clearly for all to see will constitute one area in which the Trump administration performs a very valuable public service.

Don’t count on it. She stays. The farce continues, and there’s Karl Marx – “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

Things always end in farce. This had to happen.

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Between Moon and Mars

Everyone has to grow up somewhere. Some of us grew up in Pittsburgh, in the raw new suburbs in the hills just north of the city, in the fifties, not far from the Moon and Mars – but it wasn’t that exciting. Mars was a tiny town in nearby Butler County – in a small valley along Breakneck Creek. It was a nothing place. It still is, although the high school football team is the Mars Fightin’ Planets. Cool. But no one knows why, in 1882, they renamed the place Mars. That might have been a cry of existential despair. It’s lonely out there.

The Moon was Moon Township – downstream along the Ohio River. That became home to Pittsburgh’s first modern airport in 1951, now Pittsburgh International Airport. In 1991, they relocated the terminal a few hundred feet. It’s now in Findlay Township, but most of the runways and the cargo area are still in Moon. It’s a major air-shipping hub with big hangers and warehouses. Things are fine on the Moon – and parts of The Silence of the Lambs were filmed in Moon Township. A few Moon Township police officers had minor non-speaking roles as extras in that nasty movie. It’s a curious place – but back in the fifties it was a nothing place too.

Everyone has to grow up somewhere. Many of us, back then, posed for a snapshot under the odd road sign out in the middle of nowhere, the one with the two arrows pointing opposite directions – “Moon” one way and “Mars” the other. That’s what it felt like. We were floating alone, way out there, detached from the solid everydayness of everyone else’s world. Most of us left – for the solid real world. Most of us didn’t want to be that detached from reality, even symbolically.

That doesn’t seem to bother Donald Trump. He just visited Moon Township. He decided to bypass reality. Emily Stewart sums that up:

Speaking for more than an hour to a crowd in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump described newly announced tariffs his “baby,” discussed executing drug dealers, described an NBC journalist as a “sleeping son of a bitch,” and called a black congresswoman “low IQ.”

And that was detached from this:

Trump was in town to support Republican Rick Saccone, who is running against Democrat Conor Lamb to represent Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District in a special election slated for Tuesday. The seat was held by former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), who resigned in October amid revelations that he had pressured a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to have an abortion. The race is unexpectedly tight.

That’s because Conor Lamb is young and photogenic and smart and thoughtful and dynamic – and a former Marine and a former federal prosecutor, and fine with tariffs to support the local steel folks, smart tariffs, and he’s pro-life and pro-guns (within reason) and not happy with Nancy Pelosi at all. Rick Saccone is a doofus. Even the Republicans seem a bit embarrassed by him, which might be why Trump changed the topic:

Trump endorsed Saccone early on in his speech before returning to the persona that became so familiar in the 2016 election – that of the unscripted, self-congratulatory candidate eager to rile up a crowd. “Don’t forget, this got us elected,” he said. “If I came like a stiff, you guys wouldn’t come here tonight.”

Trump brought up many of his favorite topics and insults during the freewheeling speech: He called Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) “Pocahontas,” which some say is racist, bragged about his 2016 victory, and attacked the press. He also mentioned some relatively new items, which included a call to execute drug dealers. For the first time, however, President Trump publicly unveiled his 2020 campaign slogan: Keep America Great!

He was all over the place:

Earlier this month at a White House summit on opioids, the president floated the idea of giving drug dealers the death penalty; on Saturday evening he brought it up again, which got some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. Drawing inspiration from China and Singapore – which he said have a “zero tolerance” policy and are extremely tough on drugs – Trump said drug dealers in the US should face harsher penalties than they do now.

“They shoot one person, kill some person, knife one person, the person dies, they get maybe the death penalty or maybe life in prison, no parole, right? Okay? A drug dealer will kill 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 people during the course of his or her life,” Trump said. He declared that the “only way to solve a drug problem is through toughness.”

In short, kill them all. The audience cheered. Legal experts gasped, but this is the Moon place after all, and there was this:

Trump, in his characteristically elliptical way, announced his 2020 campaign slogan by first explaining why he can’t use the 2016 slogan, “Make America Great Again” – because “I already did that.” It’s now “Keep America Great!” (Which includes the exclamation point.)

He already made America great again? That isn’t the solid everydayness of everyone else’s world. America’s allies are planning tariffs on our goods. Europe and Canada and Mexico haves given up on us. They’ll slap massive tariffs on goods we export to them, throwing tens of thousands of Americans out of work. They’ll set up their own mutual free trade agreements, and exclude us. They already have, and there was this:

Trump, as usual, spent much of his rally assailing the media and “fake news.” But he appeared to be particularly annoyed with NBC News, which he said was “perhaps worse than CNN” – which is, by the president’s standards, a major insult.

The President specifically called out NBC News anchor and Meet the Press host Chuck Todd while describing a media appearance that took place nearly 20 years ago. “It’s 1999, I’m on Meet the Press, a show now headed by sleepy eyes Chuck Todd,” Trump said. “He’s a sleeping son of a bitch. I’ll tell you.”

He hurled the same sleepy-eyes insult at Todd on Twitter in April 2017. In September last year, he called former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” as well.

Todd responded in jest on Twitter soon after Trump’s remarks, reminding viewers to set their clocks for Daylight Saving Time “before your eyes get too sleepy.”

There’s no point in taking him too seriously, but it was Women’s History Month:

The president didn’t mince his words when it came to a number of high-profile women he perceives as his enemies.

Trump’s slander of Senator Warren, who is speculated to be a contender in the 2020 presidential election, invoked a typical misogynist trope – he characterized her as an angry woman. “You know, I was watching, during the campaign, and Hillary [Clinton] was sitting right there, and Pocahontas was up, she was so angry, you know, I think she’s losing the audience,” Trump said.

Trump also went after Oprah Winfrey, presumably because there’s buzz that the billionaire TV personality might be interested in a presidential bid. “Oh, I’d love Oprah to win,” Trump said. “I’d love to beat Oprah. I know her weakness.” He said a campaign would be a “painful experience” for her.

Trump also mocked Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) as “very low IQ.” He made similar remarks at the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, DC this month.

He continued to imply that black folks have low IQs – and black women have even lower IQs – and he didn’t care – but there was this:

Trump did have some nice things to say about particular women on Saturday. He took credit for Representative Karen Handel’s (R-GA) victory in the 2017 Georgia special election against Democrat Jon Ossoff, even though Handel kept him at arm’s length during the race. And he complimented his wife Melania for being a “great” first lady. “You think her life is so easy, folks? Not so easy,” he said.

Yeah, there’s Stormy Daniels. The perpetually humiliated Melania Trump has to live with the story of her husband’s affair with the porn star, just after she had given birth to their son, now pretty much confirmed. Her life isn’t all that easy, thanks to him, but there was more:

Trump, who has been president for more than a year, mocked the idea of acting “presidential” and how boring it would be. He performed a quick bit as an example, marching around stage and speaking in a low, slow tone. “That’s much easier than doing what I have to do,” he said.

The president called Saccone “handsome” and his opponent “Lamb the sham.”

Trump took credit for the recent Winter Olympics, which he said “would have been a total failure” without him.

Trump said CNN is “fake as hell.”

At that point the crowd was chanting “CNN Sucks!” That went on for quite a while. Everyone forgot Rick Saccone, and there was this:

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Sunday sat down for an interview with NBC’s Todd that came just after Trump’s son-of-a-bitch comments. When asked about the president’s remarks about various people, Mnuchin attempted to distance himself and the White House from campaign-trail Trump.

“He’s using these vulgarities in the context of a campaign rally and obviously there were a lot of funny moments on, on, on that rally,” Mnuchin said.

“Yeah, they were hilarious,” Todd shot back.

Mnuchin seemed to be saying that this was “Moon” Township for God’s Sake, not the earth as we know it, but there is the solid real world, as Jonathan Swan reports here:

There’s a reason Trump said hardly anything about Republican candidate Rick Saccone during a rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday night that was supposed to promote his candidacy. Trump thinks Saccone is a terrible, “weak” candidate, according to four sources who’ve spoken to the president about him.

Trump held that opinion of Saccone before leaving for the rally, and I’ve not been able to establish whether his time on the ground with the candidate changed his mind.

Trump probably didn’t change his mind:

Trump isn’t the only top Republican who’s found Saccone underwhelming. The widely-held view from Republican officials: Democrat Conor Lamb is a far superior candidate to Saccone and running a far better campaign. Lamb is running effectively as Republican Lite. He’s pro-gun and says he personally opposes to abortion (though he supports abortion rights).

The thing that most irks senior Republicans involved in the race: Saccone has been a lousy fundraiser. Lamb has outraised Saccone by a staggering margin – nearly 500 percent.

That should not have happened:

Forecaster Nate Silver tweeted today: “Stating the hopefully-obvious, but the fact that PA-18 is competitive is a really bad sign for Republicans. It voted for Trump by 20 points and Romney by 17. The previous Republican incumbent there (Tim Murphy) didn’t even have a Democratic challenger in 2014 or 2016 & won by 28 points the last time he did, in 2012.”

But that did happen:

Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter emailed me this quick analysis: “My short answer is that one should never read too much into any one race but this is more than Saccone. This is a red congressional district that should go for the generic Republican. But the environment today is much worse than ‘normal’ for Republicans. That’s not because of Saccone or Lamb, but because of Trump.”

He is breaking a few rules:

There was a great deal of commotion last week after Trump commented on how Chinese president Xi Jinping consolidated his power to effectively become president for life. Trump suggested that “maybe we’ll give that a shot some day,” which a lot of people took to mean he was talking about himself.

Trump brought this up during his rally for GOP special candidate Rick Saccone tonight, and he grumbled about how the media misinterpreted his “joke” to make it reflect on his “dictatorial attitude.”

“I was joking,” Trump snarked. “Fake news! Fake! Horrible!”

And the crowd assumed he wasn’t joking. It’s their little joke. It will remain a joke until Paul Ryan introduces legislation to declare Donald Trump President for Life, and then someone else mentions the Constitution, and then all hell breaks loose. Worry about it then. This was Moon Township, not Earth – not yet.

And here on Earth as we know it, the New York Times’ Michael Tackett reports this:

Carol Rains, a white evangelical Christian, has no regrets over her vote for President Trump. She likes most of his policies and would still support him over any Democrat. But she is open to another Republican.

“I would like for someone to challenge him,” Ms. Rains said, as she sipped wine recently with two other evangelical Christian women at a suburban restaurant north of Dallas.

That’s anecdotal, and there’s much more of that, but this sort of thing is real enough:

While the men in the pulpits of evangelical churches remain among Mr. Trump’s most stalwart supporters, some of the women in the pews may be having second thoughts. As the White House fights to silence a pornographic actress claiming an affair with Mr. Trump, and a jailed Belarusian escort claims evidence against the American president, Mr. Trump’s hold on white evangelical women may be slipping.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, support among white evangelical women in recent surveys has dropped about 13 percentage points, to 60 percent, compared with about a year ago. That is even greater than the eight-point drop among all women.

“That change is statistically significant,” said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research, who also noted a nine-point drop among evangelical men. “Both groups have become less approving over time.”

Something is changing:

The women in suburban Dallas all conceded they have cringed sometimes at Mr. Trump, citing his pettiness, impulsiveness, profanity and name calling. Still, they defended him because he delivered on issues they cared most about, such as the appointment of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

“Certainly we are all embarrassed, but for the most part he represents what we stand for,” said Ms. [Linda] Leonhart, who is active in the women’s ministry at her church.

This “church lady” is embarrassed, and there’s a lot of that going around:

“I don’t know any evangelical woman who is going to defend the character of the president,” said Carmen Fowler LaBerge, host of “The Reconnect,” an evangelical-centered radio show.

“Many things the president says and does are things that many evangelicals use as examples with our kids of what we should not do,” added Ms. LaBerge, who did not support Mr. Trump in 2016. “This is not who we are as evangelicals. This is not how we treat people.”

But of course they are frightened:

Some evangelical women simply keep their views private. Gathered at a well-appointed home in Falls Church, Va., last week, eight Christian women agreed to talk about their feelings about the president, on one condition: that they not be identified.

They feared reprisal in the workplace, at their children’s schools, even at their church. They meet in secret and have a private Facebook group, which its organizer said has about 160 members, to talk about their support for Mr. Trump.

Their support is fading:

Even among religious conservatives, the Pew poll suggests tolerance for Mr. Trump has its limits.

“It may simply be that there’s not a single breaking point as much as a tipping point, the ‘Oh Lord, I can’t stand another one of these,'” said William Martin, a scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and author of “With God on Our Side,” which charted the political rise of the religious right.

Something must be done, so something may be done – Trump Lawyers Are Considering a Challenge To “60 Minutes” Airing of a Stormy Daniels Interview – a simple solution. Stormy Daniels was paid to shut up. She signed the agreement. She took the money. They want a court order – CBS cannot air the segment, now recorded and edited and ready to go but not yet scheduled. CBS will object – “public interest” and “freedom of the press” and all that. Trump may weigh in. Anderson Cooper did the interview. He’s from CNN – the “enemy of the people” – and he’s gay too – and none of this ever happened anyway. This could get ugly. This could only make Trump look worse. This will not impress the church ladies.

This also raises another question. Is Trump serious? Maybe he’s just being provocative. He took a right turn at Mars and spoke on the Moon, geographically, to people from another planet. If so, shrug. If so, the press should shrug, but they don’t.

That bothers D. R. Tucker, who points out how dangerous that is:

Here’s the problem: Trump has been this way for years. There has never been a time when he wasn’t vulgar or vicious or vainglorious. However, from the outset from his campaign, the Fourth Estate has generally sought to downplay and normalize this abnormal figure in our politics.

How many times did the press run stories about Trump “pivoting” to becoming “presidential”? How many times did major American newspapers – most notably the New York Times – run insipid, mawkish, borderline-unreadable “into-the-heart-of-Trump-country” stories? How many times did cable news networks– including CNN this morning – give valuable airtime to shameless Trump lackeys?

Journalists who genuflected to both Trump and the voters who either embraced or ignored his bigotry bear partial responsibility for this madness. Those journalists had a moral and ethical responsibility not to downplay the threat this man posed to the civic soundness of this nation – and they neglected that responsibility.

Tucker thinks they should cover this planet:

Trump and George W. Bush should be regarded as equally vile and equally injurious to our democracy. Trump and Bush are also equal in terms of the extent to which Fourth Estate figures kissed their rear ends in the interests of false balance. Remember the coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign, when Bush was depicted as a nicer, funnier, more interesting figure than the allegedly dour, boring, overly wonky Al Gore? Remember the coverage leading up to the Iraq War, when the press refused to ask the hard questions about whether or not we were being sold a bill of goods?

Journalists who normalized Bush in the 2000s effectively aided and abetted Bush’s deadly deception in Iraq (to say nothing of his hubris at home). Journalists who normalized Trump in the 2010s made the same despicable decision, for the same rancid reason.

Reporting comprehensively on the profound character flaws of Presidents or presidential candidates who happen to be Republicans is not, and never was, a form of “liberal bias” or “Democratic cheerleading.” Kissing up to those who are comfortable with racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia is not being an “objective journalist”; it’s simply being a fool and a chump.

Tucker also has a few questions:

What happens when a president doesn’t respect the office of the presidency, or the people that president is supposed to serve? What happens when a president willfully divides a nation, pits group against group, lies on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis and attacks the Constitutionally-protected press and his political adversaries in the most diabolical of ways? What happens when a president cultivates support from white nationalists and voters who don’t think white nationalism is a problem? Doesn’t the press have an obligation not to sugarcoat the hazards of this sort of behavior? Chuck Todd didn’t play patty-cake with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin this morning, but how many times have we seen Todd’s colleagues play patty-cake with Trump acolytes in the name of “respecting the office of the presidency and the president”?

In the wake of Trump’s repulsive remarks in Pittsburgh, it’s time for the press to pivot, and stop normalizing this nonsense once and for all.

That’s why, long ago, standing under that the odd road sign out in the middle of nowhere, the one with the two arrows pointing opposite directions – “Moon” one way and “Mars” the other – it seemed best to get the hell out of there. But now there’s nowhere else to go.

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One Man Now

History is no help. There are those who fear that America will not survive Donald Trump. Andrew Sullivan is one of those:

There are moments when everything I have come to believe in – reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation – seem as if they are in eclipse. Emotionalism, tribalism, intolerance, lies, cruelty, and extremism surround us (and I have not been immune in this climate to their temptations either). Trump has turned the right into a foul, spit-flecked froth of racist reactionism, and he has evoked a radical response on the left that, while completely understandable, alienates me and many others more profoundly with every passing day.

Others would tell Sullivan to calm down. Trump is just one man. Our institutions will save us. The structure of our government – the Constitution – will save us. The courts will slap him down when necessary. They have, on his travel bans. Congress will slap him down. Congress didn’t object when Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to look into things after all. Men of good conscience will speak out, and the nation will listen to them. Those men of good conscience might even be Republicans, one day, maybe. They won’t ever be evangelicals, but others will speak out. Trump cannot violate every norm and ignore every law. Remember Richard Nixon. We are a nation of laws, not men. And many said back then, the system worked. It’ll work again. One man cannot overwhelm the system.

There’s been some dispute about that. Historians have argued about that. Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer disagreed about that:

Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men” – reflecting his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and divine inspiration. In his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Carlyle saw history as having turned on the decisions of “heroes”, (giving detailed analysis of the influence of several such men including Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, Napoleon, and Wagner). Carlyle also felt that the study of great men was “profitable” to one’s own heroic side; that by examining the lives led by such heroes, one could not help but uncover something about one’s true nature.

Herbert Spencer wasn’t buying it:

One of the most forceful critics of Carlyle’s formulation of the great man theory was Herbert Spencer, who believed that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. He believed that the men Carlyle called “great men” were merely products of their social environment – “You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears and the social state into which that race has slowly grown. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

That would make Donald Trump the product of a particular and quite specific time and place – the world of Manhattan real estate and tabloid journalism that morphed into reality television, in the last three decades of the last century. He’s not a “great man” who suddenly appeared, out of nowhere, to change everything – Tolstoy would call him history’s puppet – but in popular culture everyone sides with Carlyle. Lincoln was a great man – he changed everything – and FDR was a great man too. The government of the people can help the people. Government is good – and Ronald Reagan was the great man who changed everything back. Big government is always the problem, never the solution. Barack Obama couldn’t quite convince America otherwise. Obama was not a great man, but Martin Luther King was a great man. He changed everything – but white cops still shoot unarmed black kids all the time and walk away laughing. Carlyle was wrong as much as he was right.

And then there’s Donald Trump. One week before Trump’s inauguration, David Bell, a professor of history at Princeton, tried to make sense of what had happened:

The imminent ascension to the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, a man whose supporters and detractors both agree is exceptional in the context of American history, raises a question which historians and social scientists generally prefer to shy away from: To what extent does historical change depend on the actions of a handful of unusual individuals – history’s archetypal Great Men and Women – as opposed to large-scale, long-term, impersonal forces?

Professional academics – historians, political scientists, sociologists, among others – who have tried to offer perspective on Trump’s victory, and upcoming presidency, have generally emphasized the latter. They tend to identify the key phenomenon of the 2016 election as “populism” – an upsurge of hostility to elites, which they explain by reference to the changing social and cultural conditions that left a large group of white Americans economically vulnerable, fearful of outsiders, and bitterly resentful. They credit Trump with successfully mobilizing this group but devote more analysis to the social phenomenon than to Trump himself.

But the explanatory power of populism may be far stronger for explaining the election than in forecasting what is about to happen next. Though impersonal forces may have given rise to Trump, the president-elect himself resists analysis as a predictable, impersonal force.

In short, Carlyle might have been right:

It has been particularly hard to teach the history of 20th-century Europe without often lapsing into the heroic mode – or rather into the mode of “heroes and villains.” It has been hard to avoid the conclusion that as the destructive power of states increased – exponentially – in the 20th century, and as the scope of their activities broadened, the character of the people who controlled them rose hugely in significance, especially in dictatorial states. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin are the most obvious examples. It can be argued that large-scale historical forces would have brought figures like them to power in both Germany and the Soviet Union and that those same forces dictated many of the policies that they in fact pursued.

But these larger forces in no way dictated everything these monstrously willful tyrants did. Their characters, and the choices they made, mattered.

And then there’s Donald Trump:

Personality mattered in the 2016 election. In Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party managed to nominate one of the least personable politicians in recent memory. She lacked both her husband’s uncanny ability to bond with strangers and Barack Obama’s ability to inspire with soaring rhetoric. As her opponent cruelly but quite accurately observed, until the very end she needed celebrities at her side to draw a crowd.

Trump, by contrast, whatever you may think of him, forged a powerful, personal connection with millions of voters. Not only did he understand and channel their anger at the elites they believed had abandoned them; he delighted them with his utter disdain for the rules those elites allegedly enforced and that he mocked as “political correctness.” In a close election, it’s true by definition that any number of factors decided the outcome – including Russian hacking, and the extraordinary behavior of the FBI – but personality was certainly an important one…

Trump’s personality – the crudeness, the bullying, the disdain for others’ opinions, the self-aggrandizement – all proved a good match for the electoral moment. However much these traits led liberals to despise and fear him – indeed, precisely because they led liberals to despise and fear him – they resonated with millions of other voters who saw in Hillary Clinton everything they hated about a political system they thought of as fundamentally corrupt. But, of course, Trump’s personality traits drove many others away.

And with this personality, Bell saw trouble ahead:

Despite the vast power at the disposal of the American president, most occupants of that office, even when commanding congressional majorities, have felt constrained by a host of structural conditions of one sort or another. They want to avoid spooking the stock market, damaging their party’s chances in future elections, upsetting carefully negotiated diplomatic agreements, and so on and so forth. They almost certainly have a lower estimate of their own power than almost anyone else. But these constraints, which change far more slowly than a president’s moods, make the actions they take more predictable and therefore more easily subject to social scientific analysis.

Donald Trump, however, is so willful and thin-skinned, so convinced of his own abilities, so enamored of his own unpredictability, and at the same time so unable to concentrate on any particular issue, that he is far less likely to appreciate the constraints that have weighed so heavily on his predecessors or even to understand them. He is also far less likely to listen to his advisors, and these advisers themselves are, overall, far more ignorant of their supposed areas of expertise than any other group of high-level administration officials in American history.

Bell sounded the warning:

Even in crisis situations, U.S. presidents have generally done their best to follow predictable, well-established decision-making protocols. The television shows that present a president making hugely consequential decisions under pressure, from the gut, with only a handful of close aides in the room, eliminate from the picture the vast bureaucratic operations that exist to provide information, to evaluate the reliability of that information, to analyze it, and to game out the possible consequences of different courses of action. Up to now, presidents have generally respected these bureaucracies in most cases. They know how important it is, in a world of nuclear weapons, for there to be steady, predictable protocols for resolving crises. They remember all too well that during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, only the steadfastness of a single Soviet military officer kept a submarine commander from launching a tactical nuclear weapon against an American destroyer, possibly provoking nuclear war. Donald Trump, alas, is almost certainly less likely to follow established protocols than any of his predecessors. In a crisis situation, how is he likely to react? Can anyone know?

No one could know. No one still can know, and now Gabriel Sherman reports this:

Even before he decided to launch a trade war and roll the nuclear dice by agreeing in the course of a West Wing afternoon to a risky sit-down with Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump was telling friends he was tired of being reined in. “I’m doing great, but I’m getting all these bad headlines,” Trump told a friend recently. A Republican in frequent contact with the White House told me Trump is “frustrated by all these people telling him what to do.”

With the departures of Hope Hicks and Gary Cohn, the Trump presidency is entering a new phase – one in which Trump is feeling liberated to act on his impulses. “Trump is in command. He’s been in the job more than a year now. He knows how the levers of power work. He doesn’t give a fuck,” the Republican said. Trump’s decision to circumvent the policy process and impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum reflects his emboldened desire to follow his impulses and defy his advisers. “It was like a fuck-you to Kelly,” a Trump friend said. “Trump is red-hot about Kelly trying to control him.”

Trump buys Carlyle’s Great Man Theory of History, and sees himself as a great man being held back from greatness by lesser men, so he’ll rid himself of those fools:

According to five Republicans close to the White House, Trump has diagnosed the problem as having the wrong team around him and is looking to replace his senior staff in the coming weeks. “Trump is going for a clean reset, but he needs to do it in a way that’s systemic so it doesn’t look like chaos,” one Republican said.

Sources said that the first officials to go will be Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, both of whom Trump has clashed with for months. On Tuesday, Trump met with John Bolton in the Oval Office. When he plans to visit Mar-a-Lago next weekend, Trump is expected to interview more candidates for both positions, according to two sources. “He’s going for a clean slate,” one source said. Cohn had been lobbying to replace Kelly as chief, two sources said, and quit when he didn’t get the job. “Trump laughed at Gary when he brought it up,” one outside adviser to the White House said.

But wait, there’s more:

Next on the departure list are Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Trump remains fiercely loyal to his family, but various distractions have eroded their efficacy within the administration. Both have been sidelined without top-secret security clearances by Kelly, and sources expect them to be leaving at some point in the near future. One scenario being discussed is that Kushner would return to New York to oversee Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign with his ally Brad Parscale, who was hand-selected by the Trump family. One Trump friend referred to it as a “soft landing.” Ivanka will likely stay on longer, perhaps through the summer, before decamping home to New York to enroll the children in a Manhattan private school.

But they are unhappy too:

Sources cautioned that the couple plans to hang on as long as possible, so as not to make it appear that Kelly railroaded them out of the West Wing. They continue to be furious at the chief. “Why do you have to embarrass Jared like that?” Ivanka complained to a friend recently. Kushner is doing everything he can to appear engaged despite his lack of a security clearance. “He is looking at everything he can do that doesn’t require a clearance,” a former White House official said. Another source added, “The White House is trying to fluff him up again.”

And there’s that other factor:

People who have spoken with Trump said his reset is being driven in part by the looming midterms, and he’s been fielding advice from Corey Lewandowski and Dave Bossie. They’ve counseled him to return to his 2016 campaign message. Another source said Trump has felt newfound validation after a CPAC straw poll last month showed him with a 93 percent approval rating. “He felt the crowd desiring more,” a Republican close to the White House said. “He knows there’s going to be a battle ahead.”

And he’ll fight that battle alone, as all great men do.

Martin Longman worries about that:

In combination, these departures should free Trump up to be Trump. And that’s a bad thing no matter where you stand. Say what you want about his record so far, it would be far worse if people had simply followed his instincts and directives. We’d already be in a full blown constitutional crisis if the White House lawyer Don McGahn hadn’t refused to fire Robert Mueller or if Reince Priebus hadn’t stopped Attorney General Jeff Sessions from resigning. Defense Secretary James Mattis simply ignored Trump’s proclamation on transgendered troops. There are more than a dozen other examples of Trump making policy statements that were walked back or heavily modified to make them comply with the law or simple sanity.

The courts have also played an important role in saving Trump from himself, and they’ll need to continue fulfilling that role because we’re entering a new phase where the president is going to find it much easier to convert the insane ideas that pop into his head into official policy.

But as the New York Times’ Mark Landle reports, that won’t be all that easy:

A day after President Trump accepted an invitation to meet Kim Jong-un of North Korea the White House began planning on Friday a high-level diplomatic encounter so risky and seemingly far-fetched that some of Mr. Trump’s aides believe it will never happen.

The administration is already deliberating over the logistics and location of the meeting, with a senior State Department diplomat noting that the most obvious venue is the Peace House, a conference building in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

But several officials said Friday that the United States still needed to establish direct contact with North Korea to verify the message from Mr. Kim that was conveyed by South Korean envoys to Mr. Trump on Thursday. They warned that Mr. Kim could change his mind or break the promises he made about halting nuclear and missile tests during talks.

The great man may not get his way, and the Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Anne Gearan add detail to that:

When a high-level South Korean delegation arrived at the White House on Thursday afternoon for two days of meetings over the North Korea threat, one person swooped in to fill the vacuum: President Trump.

In a stunning turn of events, Trump personally intervened in a security briefing intended for his top deputies, inviting the South Korean officials into the Oval Office, where he agreed on the spot to a historic but exceedingly risky summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He then orchestrated a dramatic public announcement on the driveway outside the West Wing broadcast live on cable networks.

The news shocked Washington, Seoul and everywhere in between. But inside the White House, the president – whose exchange of taunts and threats with Kim has set Northeast Asia on edge over a potential military confrontation for months – was said to be reveling in his big reveal, which overshadowed the growing scandal surrounding his alleged affair with a pornographic film star and concerns with tariffs he announced earlier in the day.

So far so good:

What the whirlwind evening at the White House also illustrated was that in his unorthodox presidency, which centers so singularly on his force of personality, Trump has little worry about a dearth of qualified staff because he considers himself to be his own diplomat, negotiator and strategist.

“The president is the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “And we feel very confident in where we are.”

Asked why the administration did not engage in lower-level talks with the North to build out preconditions and an agenda for a leaders-level summit, one senior aide offered that Trump “was elected in part because he is willing to take approaches very, very different from past approaches and past presidents.”

He is that unusual great man after all. Forget what David Bell had said about vast bureaucratic operations that exist to provide information, to evaluate the reliability of that information, to analyze it, and to game out the possible consequences of different courses of action. Up to now, presidents have respected these bureaucracies. They know how important it is, in a world of nuclear weapons, for there to be steady, predictable protocols for resolving crises – but perhaps great men don’t care about any of that, which is trouble:

Across Washington, foreign policy experts tried to make sense of the news, with many betting that the talks would not happen after the Trump team heard negative feedback from Tokyo, conservatives in Seoul opposed to President Moon Jae-in’s liberal government and some in Congress who fear the move is too rash.

And there’s this:

Korea experts were dumbstruck by Trump’s impulsiveness.

“He’s much more of a TV personality than business person,” said Christopher R. Hill, who led the U.S. delegation in the six-party talks with the North during the Bush era that produced a weapons freeze that Pyongyang later violated. “This is not the art of a deal here – it’s the art of a teaser.”

Why is anyone surprised? Of course he practices the art of a teaser. Herbert Spencer was right. Donald Trump is the product of a particular and quite specific time and place – the world of Manhattan real estate and tabloid journalism that morphed into reality television, in the last three decades of the last century. He’s not a “great man” who suddenly appeared, out of nowhere, to change everything – but somehow he thinks he is. And now he’s ridding himself of background information and protocols, and all those lesser men around him keeping him from greatness. Thomas Carlyle said so. Thomas Carlyle did a lot of damage.

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Dazed and Confused

Sometimes life needs a soundtrack. Those who lived the sixties, first hand, know that. They remember the British rock group the Yardbirds that became Jimmy Page’s “New Yardbirds” that he renamed Led Zeppelin – and remember the title song of their debut album – Dazed and Confused – loud and defiantly undisciplined. In concert, Led Zeppelin would stretch that song out for forty-five minutes – everyone took a long solo. It was wonderful, for those who pretend they like anarchy. Everyone else found the whole thing irritating. Some people like anarchy. Some don’t.

There was that 1993 movie of the same name with a bit of Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack. The surviving members Led Zeppelin were okay with that, except for Robert Plant, but that’s a minor matter. The movie was a high school coming-of-age comedy. Everyone in high school is dazed and confused and pretends to be in love with anarchy.

And then they grow up. Led Zeppelin loses its charm. Those who lived the sixties, first hand, who are quite old now, listen to Mozart – or prefer silence. Anarchy is for the young. Anarchy is a forty-five minute Jimmy Page guitar solo. Anarchy is really irritating – and anarchy is Donald Trump. His top aides have left the White House in droves. He’s lost key cabinet members. Some were caught in scandals and some, like Gary Cohn, just gave up, and some couldn’t get any sort of security clearance to do their job. There’s talk of chaos in the White House. Donald Trump says he likes chaos – it’s wonderful – it’s dynamic. Donald Trump pretends to like anarchy. Or maybe he actually likes anarchy. Either way, he’s left the nation dazed and confused. Led Zeppelin can supply the soundtrack.

That’ll work. Donald Trump is loud and defiantly undisciplined. His tweets are embarrassing. Some are dangerous. No one knows quite where he stands on any issue. Outrage turns to enthusiastic support. Enthusiastic support turns to outrage. That’s a matter of who talked to him last – the high school kids who survived the recent mass shooting or the NRA – people with sad stories of those “dreamers” or Stephen Miller. He’s Jimmy Page, riffing – and Robert Mueller is closing in. He lashes out. Stormy Daniels is closing in. He lashes out. He can’t help himself. He has one response. He’s defiantly undisciplined.

That assures disaster, but sometimes it kind of works:

President Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for talks by the end of May, an extraordinary development following months of heightened nuclear tension during which the two leaders exchanged frequent military threats and insults.

Kim has also committed to stopping nuclear and missile testing, even during joint military drills in South Korea next month, Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean national security adviser, told reporters at the White House on Thursday. Chung extended the invitation from Kim to meet while briefing Trump on the four-hour dinner he had with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang on Monday.

No one expected this, and a cynic might say that the North and South Koreans, realizing they’d better just get along, and maybe they could, worked everything out on their own, and then jointly decided to get the rather unhinged American president to just shut up. Tell him this was all because of him. He loves to brag. Let him brag. It doesn’t matter. The North and South Koreans have got this. They fixed this. Humor the blustering American president.

That’s possible, but for this:

After a year in which North Korea fired intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching all of the United States and tested what is widely thought to have been a hydrogen bomb, such a moratorium would be welcomed by the United States and the world. But there is also significant risk for Trump in agreeing to a meeting apparently without the kind of firm preconditions sought by previous U.S. administrations. There has never been a face-to-face meeting, or even a phone call, between sitting leaders of the two nations because American presidents have been wary of offering the Kim regime the validation of a leaders-level summit on the global stage.

This has never happened before, and Trump needs to show some discipline. The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reports on that problem:

For the moment, at least, it appears to be a clear-cut victory – the biggest foreign policy win of his young administration. President Trump has brought his arch-nemesis, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, aka “Little Rocket Man,” to the table to negotiate away his nuclear arsenal.

Optimists declared a major breakthrough. Even pessimists acknowledged that Trump’s hard line against Pyongyang, after decades of less forceful U.S. effort, played a significant role in moving one of the world’s most vexing and threatening problems in a potentially positive direction.

But in the afterglow of the surprise announcement – hinted by Trump in a teasing visit to the White House press room and soon confirmed by South Korea’s national security adviser, standing in the West Wing driveway – questions were fast and furious.

Like these:

Were direct talks between Kim and Trump, two notably volatile leaders who have traded public insults for more than a year, the best way to start what are sure to be complicated negotiations? Was the administration, whose thin bench of experienced experts seems to be growing slimmer by the day, ready to face those wily and untrustworthy North Koreans?

That is an issue, as is this:

Some analysts said it remains unclear what Trump is prepared to put on the table opposite Kim’s apparent offer to stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and discuss denuclearization. “Sanctions? Normalization? Peace treaty?” tweeted Victor Cha, the expert who was once Trump’s choice as ambassador to South Korea, before he voiced concern that the White House was contemplating a pre-emptive military strike against Pyongyang…

According to a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, the answer is not very much.

There would be no reward for talks themselves, the official said. Trump would expect a dismantled nuclear weapons program, with complete “verification,” and “will settle for nothing less.”

This whole thing may be pointless, and there’s this:

Trump has a vibrant track record of surprise announcements that have distracted attention, at least temporarily, from concern over tariffs and border walls and the growing threat to his presidency posed by the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

At the same time, he has claimed a long string of successes over the past 14 months that others have challenged as lacking a strategy for long-term sustainability, from the currently robust economy to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The North Korea gambit may be his highest-wire act of all.

“A Trump-Kim summit is a major diplomatic gamble,” tweeted Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security. “But let’s see if it actually comes off. Recall that yesterday, we were set to impose steel tariffs on Canada.”

That’s not encouraging, nor is this:

Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was “absolutely right to extend the nuclear and missile test pause” declared by Pyongyang during talks last week with the Seoul government. “It will help repair ties with South Korea and keeps us back from the brink of war.”

“Unfortunately,” Mount said, “denuclearization is a distant fantasy.” The administration “has not equipped itself for success. They have not laid the groundwork for credibility in talks [and] lack leadership with experience in international negotiation. In accepting the invitation outright, Trump has already lost much of his leverage over the terms and agenda of the talks.”

The “better play,” he said, “is to start by offering a credible plan to stabilize the peninsula and halt nuclear and missile tests sustainably, and then build out to a more ambitious agreement.”

Trump doesn’t do that sort of thing – he riffs – and Paul Sonne and John Hudson note the problem with that:

President Trump’s high-wire gambit to accept a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sets off a scramble among U.S. officials to assemble a team capable of supporting a historic summit of longtime adversaries and determine a viable engagement strategy.

State Department officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were playing down the immediacy of talks in the hours before the White House rolled out the South Korean national security adviser, who made the surprise announcement that Trump would meet with Kim.

Tillerson was right to say that:

The White House has committed to an unprecedented meeting at a time when the administration lacks a fully staffed cadre of diplomats and advisers.

The U.S. point person on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, announced his retirement in late February and has not been replaced. More than a year in, the administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea. And the Senate has not confirmed the top U.S. diplomat to eastern Asia.

Team Trump just isn’t staffed for this:

Thursday’s announcement suggested that the White House will be driving the process, but much of the grunt work will go to rank-and-file diplomats.

Hours earlier, Tillerson said there may be no talks at all. “We’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it,” said Tillerson, who is in Africa. He said he did not yet know whether “the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.”

Plans for the high-level-talks also run the risk of imploding unexpectedly, given the penchant of the two leaders to fire off inflammatory insults or tweets at a moment’s notice.

This could blow up at any moment, and it may be that Little Rocket Man has the upper hand here:

The lack of substantive diplomatic engagement with North Korea during the Obama administration has left a thin bench of people with face-to-face experience dealing with Pyongyang. Since Trump took office, the ranks of U.S. diplomats and experts have thinned amid beleaguered morale at the State Department.

“The State Department has hemorrhaged Korean linguists and former negotiators,” said Douglas H. Paal, an Asia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The North Koreans “will send people with 30 years of experience. This is a real challenge.”

The man who prides himself on being loud and defiantly undisciplined is going to find out that isn’t going to work in the adult world:

Dating back to the Soviet era, the task of striking disarmament accords has been in part the result of political will but also a product of painstaking negotiations over the details. That work traditionally has drawn on experts from across the government, including the Energy Department, the Defense Department and the intelligence community, in addition to the State Department.

Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence specialist on Korea who is now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said any agreements with the North Koreans must be based on a clearly delineated text that is prepared ahead of time, with robust verification mechanisms such as “short-notice challenge inspections” of non-declared nuclear facilities.

Whether any such plans or texts will be worked out ahead of Trump’s meeting with Kim remains unclear.

Don’t expect that. Trump is still listening to Led Zeppelin, and Nicholas Kristof adds more:

For many years, over several trips to North Korea, I’ve argued for direct talks between the United States and North Korea, and it’s certainly better to be engaging the North than bombing it. If the choice is talk versus missiles, I’ll go with the talk. But the proper way to hold a summit is with careful preparation to make sure that the meeting advances peace – and certainly that it serves some purpose higher than simply legitimizing Kim’s regime.

Kristof worries about that:

A visit by a sitting American president to North Korea would be a huge gift to Kim, and it’s puzzling that our Great Dealmaker should give up so much right off the bat. It’s just plain dizzying for Trump to go from threatening in September to “totally destroy” North Korea, and later saying that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim’s, to planning a cozy summit meeting. The more normal procedure would be, first, to negotiate our way toward the summit and make sure that we extract every possible concession, and, second, make sure that the summit serves the larger goals of resolving the nuclear crisis.

That would mean first dispatching diplomats to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork and see what kind of a deal can be worked out – and, of course, to win the release of the three American detainees in North Korea. Send H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, or Mike Pompeo, the CIA director. (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would also be a possibility, but the North Koreans have scoffed to me that he isn’t a player in Washington.)

Sherpas from each side will be preparing for the summit in the next few months to work out deliverables, but by committing to make the trip by May, Trump has given up leverage and bargaining power.

In short, beware of the defiantly undisciplined man:

Frankly, another concern about a Trump-Kim summit is that our president will impetuously agree to some harebrained scheme to get a deal. (“Withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and from Okinawa? No problem, if you’ll build a wall for me.”)

Trump has sometimes lept into commitments in Washington meetings, only to have aides later explain that he didn’t mean what he said, but it would be far more problematic to make an inadvertent or foolish commitment to North Korea. We’ve seen with the imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs that Trump doesn’t always follow the counsel of aides or seem to think through his actions, and North Korea is a far more challenging problem.

That’s obvious, and the steel and aluminum tariffs were the issue earlier in the day:

President Trump defied opposition from his own party and protests from overseas as he signed orders on Thursday imposing stiff and sweeping new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. But he sought to soften the impact on the United States’ closest allies with a more flexible plan than originally envisioned.

After a week of furious lobbying and a burst of last-minute internal debates and confusion, Mr. Trump agreed to exempt, for now, Canada and Mexico, and held out the possibility of later excluding allies like Australia. But foreign leaders warned of a trade war that could escalate to other industries and take aim at American goods.

This will not go well:

As a result of Mr. Trump’s action, levies on imports of steel will rise by 25 percent and aluminum by 10 percent. Business groups have warned that the effect could be felt across the global supply network as consumers face higher prices for automobiles, appliances and other goods. But Mr. Trump’s aides dismissed such predictions as “fake news” and said most Americans would hardly notice any impact.

It seems that all the reputable economists in the world, and industrial leaders from around the world are wrong, and Trump is right, but some things aren’t fake:

The United States is the largest steel importer in the world and the order could hit South Korea, China, Japan, Germany, Turkey and Brazil the hardest. Mr. Trump said his tariff orders were tailored to give him the authority to raise or lower levies on a country-by-country basis and add or take countries off the list as he deemed appropriate.

“This has certainly put the fear of God in America’s trading partners,” said Eswar Prasad, a professor of international trade at Cornell University.

It also made them defiant:

The White House sought to soften the blow by temporarily exempting two key trading partners, Canada and Mexico, and opening the door to carve-outs for other countries. Mr. Trump said the order would temporarily exempt Canada and Mexico, pending discussions with both about the terms of trade, including already tense talks over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Officials from Canada and Mexico have said they will not be bullied into accepting a NAFTA deal that could disadvantage their countries.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, called the initial exemption a “step forward” but said it would not change Canada’s negotiating approach to NAFTA. In a statement, Mexico said those talks would not be subject to conditions outside the negotiating process.

This has already backfired, and there was this:

The announced trade barriers came just hours after a group of countries signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade deal that no longer includes the United States. Mr. Trump, a fervent opponent of the deal, officially withdrew the United States from it on his fourth day in office.

The juxtaposition further highlighted the protectionist approach to trade policy that Mr. Trump has embraced, bucking years of America’s embrace of free and open trade. Trade experts said the approach would ultimately compromise the United States’ ability to temper China’s unfair trading practices.

“The tariff action coupled with the mishandled renegotiations of existing trade deals have alienated the very countries we need as allies to help confront the challenges posed by China,” said Daniel M. Price, a former Bush White House adviser.

It may be that Trump is actually working for China, even if he doesn’t know it, and there was this:

Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, said on Thursday that a plan to impose broad tariffs that hit allies was “dangerous” and could undermine national security.

“If you put tariffs against your allies,” Mr. Draghi said at a news conference in Frankfurt, “one wonders who the enemies are.”

Anna Fifield and Michael Birnbaum have more:

Japan – which is not just led by a friendly politician but also is a key security ally of the United States – looks likely to be slapped with tariffs on its steel exports to the United States. And to add insult to injury, the reason, Trump says, is rooted in national security.

“The U.S. is suddenly treating Japan as a target,” said Tsuyoshi Kawase, a professor of international trade policy at Sophia University in Tokyo. “The Japanese side is bewildered and confused.”

He meant to say “dazed and confused” and he’s not alone:

That bewilderment, along with anger and frustration, has rippled across the capitals of U.S. allies – countries that figured, no matter the bumps in relations with Washington, they would wind up on the same side against China in any dispute over steel or unfair trade practices. And yet suddenly there is talk of a trade war between the United States and its supposed friends.

Even those leaders who have grown accustomed to the zigs and zags of the Trump White House say this could be different. The consequences of Trump’s targeting other priorities – the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal chief among them – have not had an immediate, concrete effect. But the tariffs could soon put citizens in ally nations out of work, and if a trade war escalates, all sides could feel the pain, officials from Brasília to Brussels to Seoul say.

“The impulsiveness of the decision caught us by surprise,” said Diego Bonomo, the head of foreign trade at the National Trade Association of Brazil. His country is the second-largest exporter of steel to the United States.

No one sees much sense in all of this:

The frustration is compounded by Trump’s national security rationale. In fact, say U.S. allies, there is no national security risk to importing steel and aluminum from one’s closest military partners. And any move that damages their own industries also hits at overall NATO readiness and hurts trust among allies, they say.

Tariffs “might be attractive for the United States now, but in the long term it will have detrimental effects on America’s worldwide influence,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French CNews broadcaster.

Now allies will have to make those arguments to the White House to try to win exceptions.

Trump said Thursday he would be “very flexible” about imposing the tariffs.

“I’ll have a right to go up or down depending on the country, and I’ll have a right to drop out countries or add countries,” he said.

It’s good to be king. They’ll beg him, on their knees, not to destroy their economies, throwing tens of thousands out of work. He might relent. He might not. He alone will decide. If they seem properly humiliated he might relent. He might not. But they’ll grovel. They’ll beg for their lives, like dogs.

Or they won’t. They’ll slap massive tariffs on goods we export to them, throwing tens of thousands of Americans out of work. They’ll set up their own mutual free trade agreements, and exclude us. They already have. There’s no need to beware of the defiantly undisciplined man. And any daze is temporary. Things get clearer in a moment, and confusion is temporary too. Stop. Think. That’ll fix that.

And someone wasn’t thinking:

The prospect of tariffs also has launched a flurry of lobbying by South Korea, the third-largest exporter of steel to the United States. Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong is on his second trip to Washington in two weeks, meeting with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, as well as key lawmakers such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). That’s in addition to the campaign being waged in Washington by a special South Korean trade task force.

The prospect of steel tariffs follows on the heels of similar levies on solar panels and washing machines. But it comes at a sensitive time on the front of North Korean diplomacy.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been going all-out to facilitate dialogue between North Korea and the United States, creating the prospect of a lull in tensions, if not the start of a thaw.

But the tariffs could have a “negative impact on South Korea-U.S. relations,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said this week.

That’s curious. Trump is screwing up his first foreign policy achievement, but some people like anarchy. Some don’t. Most people outgrow thinking that anarchy is cool. Most people outgrow Led Zeppelin too. Donald Trump is a special case.

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Lacking Something

Disaster is relative. Those who voted for Donald Trump knew, or were told, that Hillary Clinton would be a disaster. There were those emails and that private email server, and the Clinton Foundation too. She couldn’t be trusted with classified material and she was corrupt – she had sold influence to the highest bidder – and she’d be under investigation from day one, and she’d probably end up in jail. Michael Flynn led the chants at the rallies and at the convention – “Lock Her Up!”

That worked, but Michael Flynn lasted twenty-four days as Trump’s national security advisor. He was the one who pled guilty to a crime. He had lied to the FBI about his Russian contacts. Now he’s a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation into what Russia was up to in the election and if the Trump folks were in on it. Mueller will go easy on him if he explains what was going on. He will. Donald Trump was the disaster, all things being relative.

America is now watching that rolling disaster, and now it’s this:

The special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters.

In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed, the people said.

In the other episode, Mr. Trump asked his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, how his interview had gone with the special counsel’s investigators and whether they had been “nice,” according to two people familiar with the discussion.

The episodes demonstrate that even as the special counsel investigation appears to be intensifying, the president has ignored his lawyers’ advice to avoid doing anything publicly or privately that could create the appearance of interfering with it.

In fact, this was just stupid:

Legal experts said Mr. Trump’s contact with the men most likely did not rise to the level of witness tampering. But witnesses and lawyers who learned about the conversations viewed them as potentially a problem and shared them with Mr. Mueller…

The experts said the meetings with Mr. McGahn and Mr. Priebus would probably sharpen Mr. Mueller’s focus on the president’s interactions with other witnesses. The special counsel has questioned witnesses recently about their interactions with the president since the investigation began. The experts also said the episodes could serve as evidence for Mr. Mueller in an obstruction case.

“It makes it look like you’re cooking a story, and prosecutors are always looking out for it,” said Julie R. O’Sullivan, a law professor at Georgetown University and expert on white-collar criminal investigations.

She added, “It can get at the issue of consciousness of guilt in an obstruction case because if you didn’t do anything wrong, why are you doing that?”

Hillary Clinton was a lawyer. She’d have known better. Donald Trump was a real estate developer and then a reality television star who then licensed his “brand” all over the world. He didn’t know better, but that sort of thing leads to other disasters:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin – apparently contradicting statements made to lawmakers by one of its participants, according to people familiar with the matter.

In January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, met with a Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned discussion of U.S.-Russia relations.

A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

That’s odd. Prince lied about that meeting. Mueller can now prove that, and Josh Marshall explains that this wasn’t just another meeting:

The meeting was “around January 11” 2017. That is to say, 9 or 10 days prior to Trump’s inauguration.

This to me is the most tantalizing part of the whole story. Presidents don’t need back-channels to conduct discussions with foreign governments, though they sometimes use them in situations that require delicacy and deniability. What precisely was this backchannel for that it couldn’t wait 10 days? The answer seems pretty straightforward – someone was either in an extreme rush or that the backchannel was to transact business that had to remain secret from the US government. Given the urgency it seems that it needed to be hidden not just from the outgoing Obama administration (for which there might be some rationale) but from the entire apparatus of the US government which would report to President Trump and for which he would establish policy in just days. That seems highly suspicious…

This seems to be about setting up a way for the Trump team to work with the Russians, on a daily basis, on all sorts of things, without the FBI or CIA or NSA or Congress or anyone else – and certainly not the public – knowing one thing about it. It would have been totally secret, a hidden shadow joint-government actually running the world – and no one would know. Or it may have been totally innocent. Prince, however, did lie about the meeting. Things are getting interesting.

The other disaster of the day was not that interesting at all:

President Donald Trump’s lawyer is trying to silence adult-film star Stormy Daniels, obtaining a secret restraining order in a private arbitration proceeding and warning that she will face penalties if she publicly discusses a relationship with the president, NBC News has learned.

The new pressure on Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, comes a day after she filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles court alleging that a nondisclosure agreement she made to keep quiet about an “intimate” relationship with Trump is invalid because he never signed it.

This is a tawdry disaster for Trump, and the Washington Post reports that some felt it was best to ignore it:

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), whose pithy comments have made him a favorite among congressional reporters, was tight-lipped Wednesday when asked how Republicans would have reacted if President Barack Obama was accused of having had an affair with a porn star.

“I don’t know,” Kennedy said before offering up a blanket condemnation of sexual harassment. “That’s the way I feel about it. This is no country for creepy old men.”

After starting to walk away, Kennedy quickly turned back to a reporter with an urgent clarification: His comments were not intended to reflect poorly on President Trump.

It seems that this disaster is not Trump’s alone:

Most Republicans on Capitol Hill sought to avoid the topic altogether, while those who were willing to talk about it were careful not to criticize Trump for allegations that would have sent previous White Houses into a tailspin…

Heading into a Senate GOP luncheon on Wednesday, a reporter asked Sen. Lamar Alexander ­(R-Tenn.) if she could seek his reaction to Daniels suing the ­president.

“You certainly may ask it,” Alexander said. When asked, though, he just chuckled, and then headed to lunch.

When Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) was asked if he had any reaction to the lawsuit, he said: “No, uh-uh, I don’t.” Hoeven then smiled and offered to discuss trade instead.

Hilary Clinton would have been a disaster? These things are relative, and there was this too:

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House advisor, traveled to Mexico on Wednesday for talks with top Mexican officials, including President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The Mexican media reported that Kushner was whisked to a meeting in Mexico City with Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, who has cultivated a close relationship with the Trump confidant.

Kushner later met with Peña Nieto. In a statement issued later, the Mexican government said that representatives of the two countries “agreed to work for agreements beneficial to both nations.”

Whether the two presidents will hold a meeting, it said, “will depend on the level of progress achieved” on a range of bilateral issues, including trade, “security, immigration and economic cooperation.”

That seems pleasant enough, but that should be put in context:

Kushner’s visit comes as tension between the two neighbors have flared anew amid profound differences about trade policy and Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a wall along the southern U.S. border – a demand that Mexico has repeatedly and emphatically rejected.

The U.S.-Mexico tension led to the resignation last week of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, who is said to have viewed her role as undercut by the machinations of Kushner and Videgaray.

A planned visit by Peña Nieto to Washington was postponed last month, reportedly after a tense telephone call during which Trump again pressed his Mexican counterpart to pick up the bill for the multibillion-dollar wall, which is to be built on the U.S. side of the border.

That aborted trip recalled a headline-grabbing episode in January 2017 when Peña Nieto announced he had scuttled a visit to the White House because of the wall dispute.

The phone call was the problem. Apparently, Trump had told Peña Nieto that even if Mexico wasn’t going to pay for the wall, he had to say that Mexico would. Trump had promised that to his base and he wasn’t about to be humiliated. Peña Nieto, by all accounts a quiet and diplomatic man, carefully explained that even saying that he might think about paying for the wall was impossible. The Mexican people would see that as a humiliation. They had their pride too. Surely he understood that. Trump didn’t understand that. One of them was going to be humiliated, and it wasn’t going to be him. There are reports that Trump was shouting. Peña Nieto cut the call short, and then he cancelled his trip to Washington.

The kid wasn’t going to fix this:

Kushner, 37, a New York-area real estate scion who had no diplomatic or government experience before Trump’s election, has been the president’s go-to advisor for some of Washington’s most delicate issues, including Middle East peace and Mexico.

That’s part of the rolling disaster too:

Officials from at least four countries have discussed ways they could use Jared Kushner’s intricate business arrangements, lack of experience and financial woes to manipulate President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The paper reported that it is unclear – based on current and former US officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter – that the countries – Mexico, Israel, China and the United Arab Emirates – acted on the conversations.

They may have only talked about it – the NSA has no more than the intercepted transcripts – but that’s bad enough. Kushner was stripped of his provisional top secret clearance. He’ll never get one now. He still owns three quarters of his family’s real estate business, a business desperate to raise more than a billion dollars, right now, to survive. Those four countries know that. Mexico knows that. And he has no diplomatic or government experience. He often meets with foreign governments without telling anyone, driving the current national security advisor, General McMaster, and Trump’s chief of staff, General Kelly, crazy. Kelly pulled the plug. When hot topics are discussed, Kushner now has to leave the room. Kushner has become what Hillary Clinton was supposed to be – someone who cannot be trusted with classified material and is likely corrupt, willing to sell influence to the highest bidder.

Donald Trump seems puzzled by this, but so far he has deferred to Kelly. Maybe the kid can do the job without knowing what’s really going on. After all, he doesn’t read his top secret daily security briefings on what’s really going on the world. That’s worked for him. Maybe that’ll work for the kid.

This might not be a rolling disaster after all. Things might work out, but as for that hypothetical totally secret hidden shadow joint-government actually running the world, that may not be working out:

Russian President Vladimir Putin lavished praise on President Donald Trump, but added that he was sorely disappointed with the U.S. political system, saying that it has been “eating itself up.”

Speaking in a series of interviews with Russian state television which were included in a documentary released Wednesday, Putin described Trump as a great communicator.

“I have no disappointment at all,” Putin said when asked about the U.S. president. “Moreover, on a personal level he made a very good impression on me.”

But that’s not the problem:

Venting his frustration with the U.S. political system, Putin said “it has demonstrated its inefficiency and has been eating itself up.”

“It’s quite difficult to interact with such a system, because it’s unpredictable,” Putin said.

And he sees what’s really going on:

Responding to a question about Russia’s growing global leverage, Putin responded: “If we play strongly with weak cards, it means the others are just poor players, they aren’t as strong as it seemed, they must be lacking something.”

He may have a point:

President Trump is planning to offer Canada and Mexico a temporary exemption from new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, reversing his original insistence that the measures apply to U.S. allies as well as nations like China, administration officials said Wednesday.

One version of the plan, which was still being finalized ahead of an expected announcement on Thursday, would give Canada and Mexico a 30-day exemption from the tariffs, the officials said. The exemptions could be extended based on progress in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement…

The White House shift came after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a last-minute appeal for flexibility, saying that overly broad tariffs would damage key security ties with U.S. allies.

On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers accelerated their efforts to pull the president back from a potentially costly trade war that he has insisted would be “easy to win.”

Yes, our political system is eating itself up:

The party’s extraordinary internal split was underscored when the Republican Study Committee, representing more than half of House Republicans, released a statement defending free trade and labeling tariffs “a tax on American consumers and businesses.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and one of Trump’s most trusted allies in Congress has spoken with the president multiple times over the past week in opposition to the tariffs, said three people briefed on his efforts who were not authorized to speak publicly.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. ‘Chaos’ doesn’t really do it justice,” said Claude Barfield, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

This is a disaster and a tricky one too:

Government lawyers have struggled in recent days to reconcile Trump’s public comments with the legal provisions they have been told to enforce. For example, Trump is trying to use the tariff threats to force Canada and Mexico to offer unrelated concessions in NAFTA. By publicly acknowledging this, he has potentially spoiled the legal standing of the tariffs, a senior administration official said, making it harder for them to design the prohibitions.

Earlier this week, Trump suggested that he would exclude Canada and Mexico from the new levies only if they made concessions in negotiations aimed at reaching a new NAFTA deal. Officials from both countries rejected the demand, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the new tariffs “absolutely unacceptable.”

Major business groups that are normally allied with the Republican Party joined the anti-tariffs chorus.

“These new tariffs would directly harm American manufacturers, provoke widespread retaliation from our trading partners, and leave virtually untouched the true problem of Chinese steel and aluminum overcapacity,” said Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Alienating our strongest global allies amid high-stakes trade negotiations is not the path to long-term American leadership.”

Putin may not want to partner with this guy. America is tearing itself apart. Something is lacking, and Slate’s Jordan Weissmann adds this:

Trump has put the governments of Canada and Mexico in an awkward position. Before tariffs were an issue, all three countries could at least pretend they were trying to negotiate some sort of win-win compromise. Now, if our neighbors make consolations on NAFTA, it will look as if they are caving to Washington’s bullying tactics, which will almost certainly play poorly with voters back home. Maybe that’s Trump’s intention; perhaps he is trying to throw yet another wrench into the NAFTA-bargaining process in order to finally kill the pact. Or perhaps he’s thinking just the opposite; it’s possible he’s worried that the tariffs aren’t playing well enough with the public and hopes that tying them to an inevitable deal with Canada and Mexico will give him an excuse to drop the whole ill-conceived lark while still claiming victory. You can only guess with Trump. But by ostensibly resorting to blackmail, the president may be making it politically harder, not easier, to strike an accord.

In short, this is like his angry phone call with Enrique Peña Nieto. Someone is going to be humiliated, and it isn’t going to be him. Peña Nieto decided there was no point in going to Washington. Justin Trudeau may just stay in Ottawa too. There is something lacking:

The Commerce Department has produced two elaborate reports arguing that the steel and aluminum industries need to be protected for the sake of American safety and well-being. But by telling Canada that it might be able to get rid of the tariffs by letting U.S. dairy farmers sell more milk in Toronto, Trump is making a mockery of that carefully wrought legal fiction. After all, if the health of the steel and aluminum industries were actually essential to U.S. security interests, the president probably wouldn’t be willing to barter them for butter sales.

This point will almost surely come up if companies sue to stop the tariffs in U.S. court. Just as importantly, it will also put the Trump administration on weaker footing before the World Trade Organization. The body’s rules allow member states to take protectionist measures for national security purposes; they do not allow members to randomly put up tariffs as a negotiating tactic. If countries want to do such a thing, they need to find a separate excuse for their actions. Trump’s trade team was hard at work on that effort. But the president is blowing their cover.

Andrew Sullivan sees the problem this way:

There are moments when everything I have come to believe in – reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation – seem as if they are in eclipse. For the foreseeable future, nationalism is likely to remain a defining political force.

That’s not the problem. Some things are lacking – reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation, and all the rest – but Donald Trump is the problem. America chose the wrong disaster, all things being relative of course.

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The New Essence of Trump

This can’t go on. But it keeps going on. It was another bad day at the White House:

Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says she was paid to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Donald Trump, sued the president Tuesday, asking the court to declare that her nondisclosure agreement before the 2016 election is void because Trump did not sign it.

In the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Daniels – whose real name is Stephanie Clifford – said she had wanted to go public with the story of her alleged decade-old affair with Trump in the weeks leading up to the election.

Apparently she had just seen that Access Hollywood tape, and had then seen Trump’s nationally televised response – he wasn’t like that at all – he respected women – no one respects women more and no one ever will – and she decided to warn America. Don’t vote for this guy. This guy is a pig, and she was stopped:

Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, and Daniels’s attorney at the time, Keith Davidson, negotiated what the lawsuit calls a “hush agreement” in which she would be paid $130,000. After delays and even a cancellation of the contract by Daniels on Oct. 17, the payment arrived on Oct. 27, 12 days before the election, according to emails reviewed by The Washington Post. Cohen said recently that he had used his own money to “facilitate” the payment.

He may have lied about that. He had been pressing Trump to reimburse him, but either way this was trouble:

The lawsuit suggests that Trump was aware of the agreement and that the money was intended to influence the election’s outcome. That intimation bolsters two complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission that say the payment violated election law because it was not reported as an in-kind campaign donation.

The lawsuit says: “Mr. Trump, with the assistance of his attorney, Mr. Cohen, aggressively sought to silence Ms. Clifford as part of an effort to avoid her telling the truth, thus helping to ensure he won the presidential election.”

There’s an alleged actual crime here:

Cohen has previously denied that the payment breached campaign finance law. But the lawsuit raises new accusations against Cohen, saying that “through intimidation and coercive tactics,” he caused Daniels this year to sign a statement denying the affair. The suit says Cohen has continued to try to “intimidate” Daniels into keeping quiet in recent weeks as reports about the deal and Daniels’s relationship with Trump have leaked out and Daniels has given television interviews.

Things only get worse and worse, but the whole thing hinges on this:

In the complaint, filed under Daniels’s real name – Clifford – the court is asked to declare the deal with Trump invalid and unenforceable, and it says Trump deliberately did not sign it so that he could later disavow knowledge of it.

But did he have to sign it himself? His lawyer signed it. Was that good enough? This case hinges on an arcane point of law, but it led to this:

Republicans in Utah are working their way toward naming a highway after President Donald Trump in thanks of his decision to dramatically scale down national monuments in the state…

The measure, introduced by GOP Rep. Mike Noel, is a nod to the President’s scaling back of Bears Ears National Monument by about 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to almost half its size. The shrinking of lands declared a national monument makes it easier to mine for coal and drill for oil.

These folks want to return most of national monuments in their state to the people, so “the people” – the fossil fuel industry – can make some money. That’s one form of populism, but a bit of humor helps:

State Democrats, however, have another idea: naming a rampway after Stormy Daniels, the porn star who has alleged a decade-old sexual encounter with the President… If the bill reaches the state Senate, Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis told the Salt Lake Tribune he would propose an amendment to name a frontage road that runs alongside the National Parks Highway “Stormy Daniels rampway.”

Democrats, however, make up less than 20% of the Senate body, suggesting the amendment is a long shot.

Still, that was fun – and none of this matters much. Any violation of campaign finance law will be met with a “sorry” and paying a fine of some sort. Trump can afford that. Trump will be fine. His base will shrug. His evangelical base can use “the flesh is weak” argument. Trump sinned, but God forgives repentant sinners and Trump is a changed man now – he now hates abortion and birth control and gay marriage too – and they’re getting their “pro-life” judges – lots of them. God uses sinners for the greater good. That won’t change, and as for the perpetually humiliated Melania Trump, the story of her husband’s affair with the porn star, just after she had given birth to their son, now confirmed, is old news. The stunning Slovenian Sphinx will remain silent – she has no other option and her English isn’t that good anyway – and everyone in the Republican Party will remain silent too. They got their tax cuts. The corporate income tax was cut in half. Their donors will be rolling in even more cash now. They’ll shrug too. They won’t say this can’t go on. This can go on. This should go on. They’ll let Trump be Trump.

That’s not true of all of them. There are limits, and that was the other big story of the day:

Gary Cohn, the White House’s top economic adviser, announced Tuesday that he was leaving the administration amid a major internal clash over President Trump’s sharp and sudden pivot toward protectionist trade policies.

The departure of Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs who had been an interlocutor between the Trump administration and the business community, is the latest jolt to a White House that has been especially tumultuous in recent weeks and unable to retain some of its top talent.

His resignation as National Economic Council director will leave the White House without a financial heavyweight who business executives and foreign leaders believed had served as a counter to Trump’s protectionist impulses and as a moderating force in other areas.

He’s gone, and now the world will get the pure essence of Trump, but Gary Cohn’s departure is just the climax of a trend:

Last week, communications director Hope Hicks resigned. In February, staff secretary Rob Porter was forced out over domestic abuse allegations. That followed the departures of deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and Cohn’s deputy on the National Economic Council, Jeremy Katz.

Taken together, the departures diminish the White House faction of free trade advocates who hold more traditional views on economics and more closely align with Republican leaders in Congress.

A whole faction is leaving, leaving Trump to be Trump:

Cohn plans to stay in his job for several weeks and continue to push back on Trump’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which have threatened to touch off a global trade war, said a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Cohn’s plans.

But Cohn’s influence on the president has clearly eroded. In the past week, Trump has said he will impose tariffs that will hit imports from Canada, Germany, Mexico, Britain, Turkey, South Korea and a range of other countries, threatening to escalate the penalties if any nation dares to retaliate.

This came after Cohn spent months trying to steer Trump away from tariffs and trade wars. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also lobbied against the tariffs. But they were eventually outmaneuvered by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, trade adviser Peter Navarro and ultimately Trump, himself.

This has been difficult:

Cohn was seen as an unconventional pick to lead Trump’s economic team because he was a Democrat from Goldman Sachs, a bank Trump had pilloried during the campaign.

Trump admired Cohn as a wealthy titan of Wall Street, but the two men had an on-again, off-again relationship – which was nearly severed in August after the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. After privately seething over Trump’s claim that “both sides” were responsible for the violence, Cohn voiced his criticism publicly in an interview with the Financial Times that was interpreted as a rebuke of his boss.

But Trump and Cohn repaired their relationship during last fall’s push for tax cuts, which became the administration’s first major legislative accomplishment.

That’s odd. A scandal with a porn star can be dismissed. All of the embarrassing tweets don’t matter. Nothing much matters – and Cohn can explain to his rabbi that the tax cuts were, in the end, more important than to refuse to continue to work for a guy who defends neo-Nazis. He may have done that, but he wasn’t going to let Trump ruin the economy:

Cohn’s departure rattled a number of business executives around the country, many of whom saw the Wall Street veteran as a free-market capitalist who would speak out against those who wanted to pick fights with global trading partners.

“The protectionists are clearly running the show right now, the economic nationalists are,” said Brian Gardner, managing director of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment banking firm. “If they replaced [Cohn] with another economic nationalist, then it really gets dicey for the markets and investors.”

Yep, a few hours before the open, the Dow futures were down – the Dow will open four hundred or maybe six hundred points lower – but the guy did what he could:

Cohn was not expected to stay long into 2018, but he did outlast the first wave of departures in January and February. The stock market soared in 2017 in part because of global growth but also because of investor enthusiasm about Trump’s deregulatory agenda and focus on tax cuts, items that Cohn helped design.

But people close to Cohn said he found the pivot toward protectionism this year infuriating, and he wouldn’t force himself to go out in public and defend it. Cohn did not attend Trump’s news conference Tuesday, something he typically does.

“He was a voice of reason and sanity on economic policy, so I think a lot of people valued his presence and the grounding that he brought to the White House,” said Lanhee Chen, a Republican policy expert and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

And the story is sad:

Cohn made a last-ditch effort Monday to schedule a meeting for Trump with companies that would be harmed by new steel and aluminum tariffs, but the White House refused to schedule the meeting for the president.

At the center of the West Wing drama has been a president who aides say is not easily controlled and whose dark moods of late have manifested themselves in private fits of rage as well as policy gyrations.

That’s Trump, and at Politico, Nancy Cook adds detail:

For many longtime Republican policy wonks and senior aides on Capitol Hill, Gary Cohn served as a touchstone. He was seen as the rare Trump administration official who did a good job of navigating substantive policy questions as well as the sometimes opaque decision-making process in President Donald Trump’s White House.

But with his resignation announcement Tuesday, Cohn joins the long list of policy experts who have departed in recent months – a brain drain that leaves the president with fewer people around him who know how to get policy made, and how to stop Trump from moving ahead with unworkable ideas.

That’s the real problem here:

Some worry the White House could return to the uncontrolled days immediately following Trump’s inauguration, when many West Wing jobs were still unfilled and former strategist Steve Bannon was writing executive orders with policy adviser Stephen Miller, including the disastrous travel ban that was ultimately knocked down by multiple courts.

“The number of bad ideas that have come though this White house that were thankfully killed dead – there are too many to count,” a White House official told Politico. “With Gary gone, I just think, from a policy perspective, it means disaster.”

Cook also notes the hidden man in all this:

Cohn’s resignation comes a month after staff secretary Rob Porter stepped down amid domestic abuse allegations. Porter, a Harvard Law graduate, had emerged as the White House’s lead policy coordinator, corralling the president’s often-divided advisers in a bid to reach consensus.

White House officials were feeling the loss of Porter in recent days, when Trump announced his plans to move forward with steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports before key legal analysis had been completed. One White House official said that “never would have happened” if Porter – who had for months been organizing weekly trade policy meetings with Cabinet secretaries and senior aides – was still in the administration.

Porter had worked closely with Cohn to persuade Trump to narrow the tariffs.

And now there’s nothing left to restrain Trump:

Cohn’s upcoming departure leaves the National Economic Council, which under Trump has become the White House’s policy powerhouse, without a permanent leader. Several other senior officials on the NEC are separately weighing whether to step down in the coming weeks, according to multiple administration officials and outside advisers to the president…

Meanwhile, rumors were circulating on the NEC on Tuesday that Trump could be tempted to tap trade adviser and economic nationalist Peter Navarro to replace Cohn. That decision would likely be met with universal opposition from NEC staffers.

“No one on this NEC will work for that guy,” one NEC official said.

That’s because Peter Navarro is an odd duck – the author of over a dozen books, including “Death by China” – and a Democrat who loves high tariffs and “repatriating global supply chains” – all parts in everything made here should come from here – who hated the Trans-Pacific Partnership too. And there’s this:

Navarro and the international private equity investor Wilbur Ross authored an economic plan for the Donald Trump presidential campaign in September 2016. Navarro was invited to be an adviser after Jared Kushner saw on Amazon that he co-wrote “Death by China” while he was researching China for Trump. When told that the Tax Policy Center assessment of Trump’s economic plan would reduce federal revenues by $6 trillion and reduce economic growth in the long term, Navarro said that the analysis demonstrated “a high degree of analytical and political malfeasance”. When the Peterson Institute for International Affairs estimated that Trump’s economic plan would cost millions of Americans their jobs, Navarro said that writers at the Peterson Institute “weave a false narrative and they come up with some phony numbers.” According to MIT economist Simon Johnson, the economic plan essay authored by Navarro and Wilbur Ross for Donald Trump during the campaign had projections “based on assumptions so unrealistic that they seem to have come from a different planet. If the United States really did adopt Trump’s plan, the result would be an immediate and unmitigated disaster.” When 370 economists, including nineteen Nobel laureates, signed a letter warning against Donald Trump’s stated economic policies in November 2016, Navarro said that the letter was “an embarrassment to the corporate offshoring wing of the economist profession who continues to insist bad trade deals are good for America.”

And this:

Navarro supports a tax policy called “border adjustment”, which essentially taxes all imports. In response to criticism that the border adjustment tax could hurt U.S. companies and put jobs at risk, Navarro called it “fake news.”

He’s a crank. Jared Kushner – knowing nothing about economics – had found him on the internet and liked the guy. Gary Cohn had put him in the corner and had given him busywork. Jared Kushner won this one.

Nancy Cook does address that sort of thing:

The White House has struggled to attract top-tier talent, and high-profile Washington Republicans have said privately that they would not join the administration…

Another possible Cohn replacement, Larry Kudlow, an outside economic adviser to the president and a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan, has heavily criticized Trump’s proposed tariffs, leading to speculation that he won’t get the job.

“It’s going to be hard to find a good economic mind that supports the president’s current economic agenda on tariffs,” a former White House official said.

Navarro is not a good economic mind. So this is over:

Cohn’s departure was celebrated by Trump loyalists who believed he was trying to moderate the president and persuade him to abandon the promises he made during the campaign.

Just after 6 p.m. Tuesday, one former Trump campaign official sent a Politico reporter a message that simply said: “RIP globalists.”

But Cohn didn’t go down without a fight:

Earlier Tuesday, some Trump loyalists had criticized Cohn’s ongoing efforts to weaken or overturn the president’s seemingly sudden announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for Gary Cohn to launch a one-man war to torpedo the president’s policy,” said the same official. “Gary is going around and openly launching a crusade against the president. And guys like Navarro and some of the other Trump loyalists inside the White House have really been taken aback by how aggressive he’s been.”

That didn’t do any good of course, but maybe the fight isn’t over. Dana Milbank sees this:

For nearly three years, Republican lawmakers have stood with Trump, offering only isolated protest, through all manner of outrage. Disparaging Mexican immigrants. Videotaped boasts about sexually assaulting women. Alleging that his predecessor put a wiretap on him. Falsely claiming mass­ive voter fraud. Racism directed at a federal judge. The firing of James B. Comey. Talk of women bleeding. A payoff to a porn actress over an alleged affair. A defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville. Support for Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations of child molestation. The guilty pleas of Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates and the indictment of Paul Manafort. The botched travel ban and bungled repeal of Obamacare. Insulting Britain and other allies. Attacks on the FBI and judiciary and attempts to fire the attorney general. Talk of African “shithole” countries. Questions about his mental stability. The lethargic hurricane response in Puerto Rico. The stream of staff firings and resignations and personal and ethical scandals, most recently Tuesday’s finding that Kellyanne Conway twice violated the Hatch Act.

Republican lawmakers were, by and large, okay with all that. But now Trump has at last gone too far. He has proposed tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. And the Republican Party is in an all-out revolt.

Milbank has a list to prove that:

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) fielded four questions at a news conference Tuesday morning and answered the same way four times: with a warning about the “unintended consequences” of Trump’s proposed tariffs.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) spoke Tuesday afternoon of “a high level of concern” and fear that “this could metastasize into a larger trade war.”

The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn (Tex.), warned about “jeopardi­zing the economy.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), usually a Trump cheerleader, warned that it would be a “real mistake.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (Tex.) urged Trump to “weigh carefully” what he’s doing.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) suggested a “scalpel not a sledgehammer.”

Rep. Kevin Yoder (Kan.), at a hearing Tuesday, warned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that “retaliatory measures are already occurring.”

Rep. Jackie Walorski (Ind.) wrote to Trump to say a manufacturer in her district called off an expansion because of the threatened tariffs.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) went to the Senate floor to warn that “tariffs are big taxes” and said a company in Tennessee suspended a planned expansion because of the tariff threat. He read into the record a Wall Street Journal editorial calling the tariffs Trump’s “biggest policy blunder.”

The Republican criticism poured forth, from Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), from Reps. David Young (Iowa), Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), and even from new Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell.

They’d rather the economy didn’t tank:

This is why Republican lawmakers look the other way when presented with Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct, racial provocations, conflicts of interest, cowboy diplomacy and assaults on the rule of law. But slapping a tariff on foreign metals? That crosses the line.

That’s too glib. All of those other things matter, but so does the economy. These guys have to start somewhere, and with the departure of Gary Cohn the world is about to get the pure essence of Trump, perhaps on all those other matters too. He’s being freed. The stench will be overwhelming. This can’t go on. But it keeps going on.

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