Creeping Socialism

Even recent history seems quaint now. There was that Occupy Wall Street stuff – the protest movement that began on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, down by Wall Street, all about economic inequality. The protesters were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, but other financial centers all across the country were “occupied” for a time – the Ninety-Nine Percent was white-hot angry with the One Percent. It was the greed and corruption and the absurd influence of corporations on government – and then it was over. The whole thing had been too loosely organized. There was no leader, no charismatic spokesperson. There was just anger, and five years later the still-angry Ninety-Nine Percent elected the ultimate One Percent guy, Donald Trump, president. The man had gold-plated toilets in his gold-plated penthouse in his gold-plated skyscraper on Fifth Avenue, but he was the man who would make things right for the angry Ninety-Nine Percent – because he was really one of them. He said so. They believed him. He didn’t say how. They didn’t care. And then he filled his cabinet with Wall Street guys and corporate executives, all of whom made themselves richer. He said he was looking out for the little guy. Damn, this Trump guy was good!

He was good at that because the “Occupy” movement was terrible at that – they had no Svengali – but that couldn’t last. Just before the last midterm election, Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted this:

Why shouldn’t a 28-year old, who was only a bartender a year ago, defeat a Democratic establishment stalwart? And why shouldn’t that person say, without shame or apology, that she’s a socialist?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary-election victory, coming on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, has thrust “socialism” into the center of the American political conversation. Ideas once dismissed as radical are now gaining a hearing.

The premise was that socialism is doing something for the people, that angry Ninety-Nine Percent, and Hamid argues that this has to happen:

Conflict, or at least the threat of it, can be a powerful motivator. If a government has no fear that the poor might one day revolt, then it will have few incentives to check the excesses of the rich. If elected leaders have no fear that they might lose the minority vote, they will have little reason to take racism as seriously as they should. If established parties have no fear that populist parties might take their place, they will have little reason to rethink their basic approach to politics. Without pressure from populist challengers, centrist parties will avoid addressing sensitive issues, instead postponing them until crisis hits. And crisis almost certainly does.

And now they do have fear and that provides an opening:

The point about radical ideas is that some of them may be good, but there’s no way to know, definitively, whether they are, until they’re debated openly and freely. And, today, that’s precisely what’s happening.

And that’s because of the fear:

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night and celebrated his criticism of socialism as evidence that her progressive policies are gaining steam.

“I think he’s scared,” she said, adding: “I thought it was fabulous. It shows that we got under his skin.”

And he should be scared:

She said the president attacked democratic socialism – her brand of progressive politics – because he fears the popularity of her agenda.

“I think that he needs to do it because he feels like – he feels himself losing on the issues,” she told MSNBC. “Every single policy proposal that we have adopted and presented to the American public has been overwhelmingly popular, even some with a majority of Republican voters supporting what we’re talking about.”

She added: “In order for him to try to dissuade or throw people off the scent of the trail, he has to really make and confuse the public, and I think that that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.”

Well, he did his best:

After condemning the “brutality” of Venezuela’s authoritarian government, Trump turned to socialism in America, apparently referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of democratic socialism.

“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said to cheers from many in the audience.

“America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control,” he added. “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser sees what is up here:

The morning after President Trump’s rambling State of the Union address, Fox News offered a helpful guide to what we were supposed to take away from a speech that seemed to have a million themes and no clear point. “We will never be ‘socialist,'” the banner headline on the Fox Web site read. “President Trump vows to reject far-left economics in SOTU speech, as key Dems watch stone-faced.”

Underscoring the point, Trump was shown next to photographs of a grimacing Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont who ran for President in 2016 as a Democrat, and may do so again in 2020, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-leaning New York congresswoman who has become such a celebrity since her election that she is now known almost universally by her initials.

 When Trump had said, a few hours earlier was a seemingly throwaway Republican applause line, just a short passage coming nearly four thousand words in to a five-thousand-word speech. But the sloganeering summed up, as much as anything could, what Trump’s address to a sharply divided Congress and country was all about: kicking off his 2020 reelection campaign.

This was not what had been promised:

Trump’s State of the Union address was not a message of unity to a troubled nation. There was no meaningful olive branch to the opposition. It was not, as Vice-President Mike Pence reportedly promised in a private briefing to supporters, an extensive foreign-policy manifesto. Nor was it any kind of guide to how Trump will handle the partisan gridlock over his border wall, which threatens once again to shut down the federal government, in a week. Beyond the mindless platitudes and empty rhetoric repeatedly recalling America’s seventy-four-year-old victory in the Second World War, it was a campaign event: part partisan rant, part ersatz Reaganism, and, in the end, one hundred percent Trump.

And everyone knows the guy by now:

Trump is all about having enemies. Without Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to set himself in opposition to, he will try to vilify far-left socialist Democrats and rampaging illegal immigrants in 2020. The immigrant-bashing, of course, was a staple and centerpiece of his 2016 race. The claim that Democrats are going to turn America into a Venezuelan socialist hellscape is something new. The Party, with its embrace of Sanders (and his Medicare-for-all proposal) AOC (with her talk of seventy-per-cent income-tax rates on the über-rich), appears to be tilting left at just the right moment for Trump.

He’s happy, but things are never that simple:

Democrats, of course, will seek to make the race a referendum on the contentious President himself – on his corruption and controversies, erratic persona, hardline policies, and bullying tweets. If they succeed in doing so, they will likely win. Trump starts out, at this point in his term, with the lowest ratings of any President in decades, and already public surveys have found a significant majority of registered voters who say they will definitely vote against him next year.

Then again, a crowded field of more than a dozen Democrats now seems certain, with no clear front-runner. Polls of the primary electorate are skewing increasingly liberal, and there is a decided tilt left in who is choosing to run and who is opting out. “The President is unlikely to ever get his approval ratings much above where they are now. At best, he hits forty-five per cent,” the political analyst Amy Walter, the national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me. “The way Trump wins reelection isn’t by getting more people to like him – it’s by insuring that voters don’t see the Democratic nominee as a viable alternative.”

And that’s the plan:

That is exactly where the embedded message of the State of the Union address comes in. Democrats are bad, unpatriotic, against freedom and free enterprise; extremists who favor late-term abortions; churlish obstructionists who hate the President so much that they can’t even acknowledge successes like a booming economy.

By the time Trump got to Venezuela, making the awkward leap between that country’s descent into poverty and chaos and threats to the American way of freedom at home, the 2020 campaign theme started to seem even clearer.

The “socialism” line wasn’t a red herring; it was the point.

That may be a mistake:

Democrats say there’s no point to the attack, noting that bashing the rich is the kind of politics that does well across the American political spectrum. The Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg told me that he watched the reaction to the President’s speech with two hundred and twenty-five voters registering their opinions on dials. “The thing I absolutely worried least about” was this, he said. In 2018, when he polled voters, “People loved any hint of socialism.” But, of course, the intended audience for Trump’s State of the Union was not the country as a whole; it was the Republican Party faithful, who, according to the networks’ coverage, were the ones who disproportionately tuned in to hear the President. In its instant poll, CBS found that three-quarters of viewers surveyed had approved of the speech, but that was because they were almost all Republicans.

Trump is making a mistake. At least E. J. Dionne thinks so:

“We socialists are trying to save capitalism, and the damned capitalists won’t let us.”

Political scientist Mason B. Williams cited this cheeky but accurate comment by New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank to make a point easily lost in the new war on socialism that President Trump has launched: Socialism goes back a long way in the United States, and it has taken doses of it to keep the market system alive.

Going back to the late 19th century, Americans and Europeans, socialists and liberal reformers, worked together to humanize the system’s workings and to find creative ways to solve problems capitalism alone couldn’t.

That may be what is happening here:

Think about this when pondering the Green New Deal put forward last week by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). It’s sweeping and adventurous. There is virtually no way it will become law as long as Republicans control the Senate and Trump is president. And if something like it eventually does get enacted, there will be many compromises and rewrites.

But there would be no social reform, ever, if those seeking change were too timid to go big and allowed cries of “socialism” to intimidate them.

And there really is no need to be intimidated anymore:

Open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won more than 12 million votes in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries running explicitly as a democratic socialist. Some recent polls even have Sanders running ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups.

So this is a rearguard action:

Trump’s words are entirely about reelection politics. He wants to tar all Democrats as “socialists” and then define socialism as antithetical to American values. “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination and control,” he declared. “We are born free, and we will stay free.” Cue Lee Greenwood.

But attacking socialism isn’t the cakewalk it used to be. During the Cold War, it was easy to frighten Americans with the s-word because the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics offered a powerful example of the oppression that state control of all of the means of production could unleash.

The Soviet Union, however, has been dead for nearly three decades. China is communist on paper but a wildly unequal crony capitalist dictatorship in practice. Young Americans especially are far more likely to associate “socialism” with generous social insurance states than with jackboots and gulags. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are anything but frightening places.

It seems the world has changed:

The 2018 PRRI American Values Survey offered respondents two definitions of socialism. One described it as “a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support and access to free higher education,” essentially a description of social democracy. The other was the full Soviet dose: “a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation and communications industries.”

You might say that socialism is winning the branding war: Fifty-four percent said socialism was about those public benefits, while just 43 percent picked the version that stressed government domination. Americans ages 18 to 29, for whom Cold War memories are dim to nonexistent, were even more inclined to define socialism as social democracy: Fifty-eight percent of them picked the soft option, 38 percent the hard one.

Oh, yes, and on those tax increases that conservatives love to hate – and associate with socialism of the creeping kind – a Fox News poll last week found that 70 percent of Americans favored raising taxes on families with incomes of over $10 million.

Trump may be fighting a losing battle here, and Paul Waldman adds this:

Republicans are amping up their warnings that socialism is here and ready to put its heavy boot on our necks. The fact that they’re pushing this line is not surprising, given that the Democratic Party is indeed moving left and embracing policy solutions with stronger government components than what is currently in place on issues such as health care.

The trouble is that as an insult, “Socialism!” doesn’t have the zing it once did. And that’s Republicans’ own fault.

That’s because they got lazy:

One reason “Socialist” isn’t the powerful insult it once was is just time: Since the Soviet Union collapsed almost three decades ago, there are a couple of generations of Americans who have no memory of the Cold War. For them, socialism is not synonymous with communism, which anyway is just something they learned about in history class. They don’t view it as the ideology of our enemies.

But more importantly, in the time since, Republicans have attacked almost anything Democrats wanted to do as socialism. Modest tax increases on the wealthy? Socialism! Regulations to lower carbon emissions and reduce the risk of climate catastrophe? Socialism! Healthcare reform built on maintaining private insurance but with stronger protections for consumers? Socialism!

After hearing that for so long, a lot of young people in particular seem to have concluded that “socialism” means little more than “policies that are more liberal than the Republican Party would prefer.” In other words, they’ve accepted the Republican view of what socialism is.

But then there’s the matter of simple logic:

Republicans have been working hard to convince people of this syllogism: Democrats are a bunch of socialists; Venezuela is socialist; therefore anything Democrats suggest will inevitably turn us into an economic disaster like Venezuela. Besides being completely asinine (ask economists whether we’re in danger of seeing U.S. inflation reach 1 million percent any time soon), the argument relies on the broad public reacting with the same horror Republicans do when they hear suggestions like a wealth tax or universal health care.

But they don’t, in part because when they hear the word “socialist,” Americans are more likely to think of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Joseph Stalin or Fidel Castro. In other words, someone who admires the social democratic systems they have in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, and would like to see something similar here: a capitalist economy, but one that isn’t structured so much to benefit the wealthiest elite and includes a stronger system of social supports – which isn’t nearly as terrifying.

So very little of this makes much sense at all:

The policies he’ll be describing as socialist, such as higher taxes for the wealthy and giving more people health coverage, already have wide support, and with his own low approval ratings he’s unlikely to persuade people to change their views on those policies. Instead of destroying the Democratic nominee by pinning on her a label that everyone agrees is horrific he’s much more likely to make socialism more popular than ever.

Waldman argues that it’s the same with the New Green Deal:

The resolution isn’t a detailed piece of legislation. Instead, it’s a statement of intent, explaining the justification and goals of a massive infrastructure program to transition to a sustainable future. This is at once incredibly ambitious and politically practical, in that its advocates seem to have in their minds a long-term plan to get it accomplished.

Don’t be surprised if in short order it becomes one of the defining pieces of the Democratic agenda, both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail.

The synopsis from Ocasio-Cortez’s website:

The Green New Deal is a 10-year plan to create a greenhouse gas neutral society that creates unprecedented levels of prosperity and wealth for all while ensuring economic and environmental justice and security.

The Green New Deal achieves this through a World War 2 scale mobilization that focuses the robust and creative economic engine of the United States on reversing climate change by fully rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, restoring our natural ecosystems, dramatically expanding renewable power generation, overhauling our entire transportation system, upgrading all our buildings, jumpstarting US clean manufacturing, transforming US agriculture, and putting our nation’s people to work doing what they do best: making the impossible possible.

Waldman notes what came next:

Whenever Democrats offer a major policy proposal, the immediate response from both Republicans and journalists is “How will you pay for it?” Ocasio-Cortez was asked that question in an interview that aired on NPR and she was happy to say that yes, government is going to spend money on these projects:

“We have tried their approach for 40 years. For 40 years, we tried to let the private sector take care of it. They said ‘We got this. We can do this. The forces of the market are going to force us to innovate.’ Except for the fact that there’s a little thing in economics called externalities. And what means is that a corporation can dump pollution in the river and they don’t have to pay for it, and taxpayers have to pay for cleaning up our air, cleaning up our water, and saving the planet. And so we’ve already been paying the costs, except we have not been getting any of the benefit. And so what we’re here to say is that government is not just for cleaning up other people’s mess, but it’s also for building solutions in places where the private sector will not.”

That was clever. She turned the tables on the Republicans:

This is perhaps the most important feature of this proposal: In both its content and the way its advocates are selling it, it’s meant to change the way we think about government projects.

You can see why this would make Republicans nervous, beyond the fact that they don’t particularly care about climate change and don’t like government to do much of anything affirmative. They have managed to shape the debate on government spending in an extraordinary way, in that the things they want to spend money on, like tax breaks for the wealthy or wars or enormous military budgets, are almost never questioned in the same way.

So this is just substituting one form of socialism for another:

When Republicans say “We need to spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars on the military next year,” reporters don’t pepper them with questions about how it’ll be paid for. It’s just accepted that it’s worthwhile, and therefore deficit spending is an appropriate way to finance whatever taxes don’t cover.

Ocasio-Cortez and others are making the same argument about green infrastructure, as well as things such as expanding health coverage: It’s worthwhile, and if deficit spending is what’s required to pay for it, that’s fine.

And perhaps that’s socialism, but all government spending, on anything and everything, is socialism – everyone chips in for what the private sector just cannot do – for the good of everyone – not just the few. And now this is a matter of defining what is worthwhile. Maybe the Occupy Wall Street movement was a success after all – eight years late now – but better late than never. Venezuela? Sweden? No, it’s just us, doing our best.

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Simple Blackmail

Trump and Putin – Trump and the wall and the next government shutdown – Trump giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban and giving Syria to Russia – Trump ending NATO and the EU too, if possible – the Trump and Kim bromance – Trump and those ungrateful uppity black folks – Trump closing the borders and putting massive tariffs on everything from everywhere – Trump shutting down all congressional inquiries because that’s no more than “presidential harassment” and the Republicans never did anything like that to Obama – and “fake news” – especially “fake news” about climate change (a hoax invented by the Chinese) and the Mueller investigation (a witch hunt) – that’s the daily diet, the news that never changes all that much. It may be that Donald Trump is a Russian agent after all, or an unwitting (dumb as a rock) tool of the Russians, or maybe he’s just in way over his head, but it doesn’t much matter. The public has been overwhelmed. There’s too much of this. No one wants to hear any more of this. Let it go. Let him be who he is.

The nation needed new news to chew on. That’s what the nation got. But it was coming. Jeff Bezos owns Amazon. He may be the richest man in the world, and he bought the Washington Post. He likes the idea of a well-funded free press that looks into things and keeps everyone on their toes – so he bought that famous newspaper and funds everything they do. He doesn’t tell them what to write – he hasn’t time for that – he just likes the idea of them doing their thing, a good thing. And that drives Donald Trump crazy. Bezos is a thousand times richer than Donald Trump. And he can prove it. And Bezos’ Washington Post keeps reporting on Trump’s many scandals, and was all over Saudi Arabia for murdering a journalist who wrote for them – and Trump was okay with that and he loves those Saudis. They buy luxury condos in his Manhattan skyscrapers. They buy whole floors. When he bought the Plaza Hotel back in the eighties, and then went bankrupt, a Saudi prince bought the hotel from him – all cash, lots of cash – and solved that problem – and another Saudi prince bought his giant luxury yacht that the bank was about to seize – solving anther little problem. The Saudis have been good to him and now the new crown prince over there is his son-in-law’s best friend forever. Jared is part of the family there now – or he’s being used. That’s what Bezos’ Washington Post reports. And that angers Trump. Bezos is the enemy. Someone should do something about Bezos.

Someone did. And the new news is that they failed:

The richest man on earth accused the nation’s leading supermarket tabloid publisher of “extortion and blackmail” on Thursday, laying out a theory that brought together international intrigue, White House politics, nude photos and amorous text messages.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post, made his accusations against American Media Inc., the company behind The National Enquirer, in a lengthy post on the online platform Medium.

It seems that the National Enquirer thought they had Bezos nailed:

Last month, The Enquirer published an expose of Mr. Bezos’ extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former host of the Fox show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

The headline of Mr. Bezos’ post – “No thank you, Mr. Pecker” – targeted David J. Pecker, the head of the tabloid company. In the sometimes digressive text that followed, he accused American Media of threatening to publish graphic photographs of Mr. Bezos, including a “below-the-belt selfie,” if he did not publicly affirm that The Enquirer’s reporting on his affair was not motivated by political concerns.

“Well, that got my attention,” Mr. Bezos wrote of the threat.

It seems that they did have him nailed:

The inciting event in this battle of American titans was the Jan. 28 edition of The Enquirer, which hit supermarket racks on Jan. 10, one day after Mr. Bezos and his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie, announced that they would be getting a divorce. The tabloid devoted 11 pages to the story of Mr. Bezos’ affair with Ms. Sanchez, calling it “the biggest investigation in Enquirer history!”

The Enquirer boasted that it had tracked the couple “across five states and 40,000 miles,” furtively observing them as they boarded private jets, rode in limousines and repaired to “five-star hotel hideaways.” The article was illustrated with paparazzi shots of the unwitting couple as they stepped onto a tarmac and arrived together at what the tabloid called “their beachfront love nest in Santa Monica.”

The tabloid also published amorous text messages that Mr. Bezos had sent to Ms. Sanchez. “I am crazy about you,” he wrote, according to The Enquirer. “All of you.”

Yeah, well, who the hell cares about these two people? That was the mystery here, and that may be a Trump mystery:

Tech executives are not the usual subjects of Enquirer covers, and the story set off speculation in Washington and New York media circles that the tabloid’s aggressive coverage of Mr. Bezos was tied to the closeness of Mr. Pecker, The Enquirer’s chief, and the White House. That alliance came fully to light last year in the legal drama involving hush payments to women alleging affairs with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Pecker were longtime friends – but the relationship between the two was said to be frayed in recent months, when American Media’s leadership entered into a deal with federal prosecutors looking into the company’s role in the hush payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Pecker and his associates had helped orchestrate the deals involving two women who alleged past affairs with Mr. Trump in “catch and kill” deals: the former Playboy model Karen McDougal and the porn star Stormy Daniels.

Pecker may have been trying to show Trump that he was still Trump’s guy, so Bezos decided to look into that:

After The Enquirer made his private life public, giving Twitter wags and late-night hosts the chance to weigh in on his high-flown texting style, Mr. Bezos sprang into action, starting his own investigation of the tabloid’s motives and how it had come to possess his texts to Ms. Sanchez.

The Amazon founder, who at last count was worth $136 billion, suggested that he would spare no expense in taking the fight to the tabloid publisher. Leading the investigation was Gavin de Becker, Mr. Bezos’ longtime security chief, whom Mr. Bezos said he had instructed “to proceed with whatever budget he needed to pursue the facts in this matter.”

It was a bold move for someone who has often tried to evade the spotlight, even amid the frequent insults hurled his way by Mr. Trump, who has labeled the newspaper that Mr. Bezos purchased in 2013 as “The Amazon Post” and recently called him “Jeff Bozo” in a tweet.

But he’s not the Bozo here:

Mr. de Becker confirmed to The Daily Beast on Jan. 31 that he was leading the investigation into the matter of how the Enquirer had obtained the text messages. Not long afterward, The Post prepared an article exploring competing theories about the motivation behind the publication of the tawdry tale.

That’s what changed everything:

American Media made the next move, offering Mr. Bezos an offer that it wrongly assumed he could not refuse. And if he did say no? A future issue of The Enquirer would make him very unhappy, with the selfies and more of the steamy texts it had apparently obtained.

“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks and corruption,” Mr. Bezos wrote. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over and see what crawls out.”

And that’s what he did. He published every single threat sent to him by AMI – including the texts and photos they had threatened to publish – every single one of them. Now they had nothing. In fact, they had less than nothing:

By using Medium to reveal The Enquirer’s backstage maneuvers, Mr. Bezos – one of the world’s most powerful tech titans and the owner of one of the country’s most influential newspapers – showed the best means of communications can be a simple blog post.

Sometimes rambling – while also showing the occasional flair of tabloid columnists of yore – the Bezos post pulled together random strands of the yearlong legal drama involving the president, American Media and the allegedly illegal payments to women.

They really should not have messed with this guy:

Federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York determined that the American Media payment was an illegal corporate contribution. Because the company cooperated with prosecutors, the authorities did not bring charges. But they made American Media sign onto a non-prosecution agreement, in which it affirmed that it had made the payment to “influence the election.”

That agreement, signed in September, stipulated that AMI “shall commit no crimes whatsoever” for three years, and that if it did, “AMI shall thereafter be subject to prosecution for any federal criminal violation of which this office has knowledge.”

If American Media’s threat to publish the personal photos of Mr. Bezos is determined to have been criminal, it would find its deal with federal prosecutors in jeopardy.

They screwed themselves:

American Media appeared to warn Mr. Bezos away from raising any political speculation in an email to Mr. de Becker’s attorney, which he shared on Medium. In the letter, which he quoted in full, a lawyer for the company, Jon Fine, demanded that Mr. Bezos state publicly that he had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that” American Media’s “coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Mr. Fine has worked as a lawyer at Amazon.

In his post Mr. Bezos also appeared to imply that the tabloid company was doing the bidding of Saudi Arabia, quoting from a New York Times report last year: “After Mr. Trump became president, he rewarded Mr. Pecker’s loyalty with a White House dinner to which the media executive brought a guest with important ties to the royals in Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Pecker was pursuing business there while also hunting for financing for acquisitions.”

Pecker did want Saudi money to expand the business. The Saudis did hate Bezos, for this:

The Post has been reporting determinedly on intelligence assessments that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the grisly murder of the Saudi dissident – and Post global opinion contributor – Jamal Khashoggi.

Pecker would get Bezos to back off on that, and shut down Bezos’ Post on any embarrassing Trump reporting. Think of it as a bulletproof joint Trump-Saudi blackmail threat that would neuter this guy. Mohammed bin Salman might prefer to dismember this man in an embassy basement, but that’s not Trump or Pecker’s style. Simple blackmail would do for now – but Bezos ruined that. He put it all out there. Then they had nothing. Rats!

Josh Marshall saw this:

Jeff Bezos published a letter on Medium that is, frankly, one of the most stunning things I’ve ever read. It is also extremely important, far beyond the celebrity gossip of a billionaire caught in an affair or compromising photographs.

Put simply, we’ve known for a couple years now that in addition to being the tabloid we’ve known for decades, the National Enquirer also weaponizes embarrassing information on behalf of Donald Trump and presumably others. They’ve already been obliged to enter into a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in New York over their role in the hush money payments on behalf of Donald Trump in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. When the Enquirer published the story of Jeff Bezos’s affair several weeks ago it was an obvious question whether this was some sort of hit on behalf of Donald Trump since Trump has made Bezos one of his top public enemies.

And obvious questions have obvious answers:

Bezos published correspondence which appears to clearly show AMI (the Enquirer’s parent company) trying to blackmail him. Put simply, the Enquirer lays out in some detail that it has various dick pics of Bezos and semi-nude photographs of his girlfriend. If Bezos doesn’t stop his investigation and publicly announce that his investigators found that the Enquirer did nothing wrong, they’ll publish the photos.

And that will ruin one of Trump’s biggest enemies, but some plans just don’t pan out:

Ex-prosecutors who I think know what they’re talking about are saying this probably isn’t blackmail by a criminal standard. So let’s assume that’s true – but what it does show is that AMI is precisely the criminal enterprise, weaponizing pseudo-journalism and cash payoffs on behalf of wealthy associates, as we’ve come to suspect.

Bezos’ also hints pretty clearly that there may be evidence that the Saudis are somehow behind what happened. Remember, Trump hates Bezos because he owns the Washington Post. Whether he believes that Bezos actually calls the shots in the Post’s reporting I have no idea. But that’s the source of Trump’s ire. Jamal Khashoggi also had a column with the Post. The Post has taken the lead in pushing for justice on Khashoggi’s behalf. So the Saudis have a big beef too. And of course Trump appears to have his own corrupt ties to the de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

So it all comes together:

Now, in theory, maybe AMI just wants Bezos to back off. No one likes being scrutinized by private investigators even if you’re just sleazy and not criminal. But the hyper-aggressive nature of AMI’s actions here tells me there’s something much bigger in play here.

Think of it this way. Trump and the Saudis finally have their weapon against “fake News” and the press in general, the “enemy of the people” to both Trump and the Saudis. They have the massive Pecker Blackmail Machine out there collecting everything from everywhere. They’ll find something, somehow, which worries Marshall:

I give Bezos credit. This is a very bold move at the cost of substantial personal embarrassment. But the malign role of AMI in American public life has an importance that goes far beyond that. This looks to me like a very, very big deal.

It is a big deal. This president has a secret weapon – the massive Pecker Blackmail Machine. He can destroy you with a snide nickname. If that doesn’t work, he can destroy you with a single sarcastic tweet. If that doesn’t work, it’s blackmail. He’ll find something, or in a pinch, make up something. You want to argue policy? You want to argue about the law? Go ahead. It won’t make a difference. If the nickname doesn’t get you, the Tweet of Death will – and if that doesn’t get you, there’s blackmail. There’s something in your past. There always is. You’re toast.

That seems to be the plan:

Ronan Farrow said Thursday that he and “at least one other prominent journalist” who had reported on the National Enquirer and President Trump received blackmail threats from the tabloid’s parent company, American Media Inc., over their work.

Farrow’s allegation came just hours after Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos published a remarkable public post accusing the National Enquirer of attempting to extort and blackmail him by threatening to publish intimate photos unless he stopped investigating the publication. Bezos owns the Washington Post.

In a tweet Thursday night, Farrow wrote that he and the unnamed journalist “fielded similar ‘stop digging or we’ll ruin you’ blackmail efforts from AMI.” Last April, Farrow published a story in the New Yorker about the Enquirer’s “catch and kill” practice – in which stories are buried by paying off sources – that benefited Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Farrow added that he “did not engage as I don’t cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting.”

They’ll get around to him later, and he’s not so special:

In response to Farrow, former Associated Press editor Ted Bridis tweeted, “We were warned explicitly by insiders that AMI had hired private investigators to dig into backgrounds of @AP journalists looking into the tabloid’s efforts on behalf of Trump.”

Everyone knew what was happening. Trump is a different kind of president. He has AMI working for him. AMI has its private investigators. Simple blackmail will keep the press in line – except for Jeff Bezos. Trump now has an even bigger problem with him.

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Not Quite Harassment

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.”

That’s what people will remember from Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, but for different reasons. Economists see no economic miracle. Obama turned the economy around – it’s been strong steady growth for years. Trump goosed that a bit. Things got a bit better – but the equity and bond markets have been all over the place and all the tariffs do cause damage. There are the headlines – Farmer Bankruptcies Swell to Decade High in Midwest – and there will be more. There is no miracle. Trump hasn’t screwed things up too badly, yet, so perhaps that’s the miracle. But others see other things – an authoritarian threat and of course bad grammar. The only THINGS that can stop the miracle – plural THINGS – are the three things mentioned.

The issue is verb agreement, but of course there have been reports that this sort of thing is intentional. Bad grammar makes Trump a man of the people. He’s not one of the elite – not him. His base hates those arrogant bastards with fancy college degrees who think they know everything. Those who dropped out of school after the eighth grade are more authentic. They’re the real Americans. Trump is always signaling he’s one of them. It’s the tweets. He makes sure he sounds like an eighth-grade dropout. That works. He has their vote forever. Former English teachers weep. His base also hates English teachers.

And he actually said this:

An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just does not work that way. We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.

That’s the authoritarian threat. Dissent, or disagreement, or even sullen grumpiness, cannot be allowed. If those are allowed we’ll lose the war. Everyone must agree with him, cheerfully, or we’ll all die. That’s just how things work. Everyone knows this. Or everyone who is not a total fool knows this. And everyone knows there will be no legislation to fix anything if these damned investigations continue.

Yeah, well, Jennifer Rubin has some questions:

How is Trump’s scenario supposed to work? Congress passes a bipartisan infrastructure bill and what? Trump won’t sign it while the House investigates potentially unconstitutional emoluments? Congress passes a wholly popular drug cost-reduction bill and Trump vetoes it because Congress is investigating his inhumane family-separations policy?

Forget that:

Trump’s threat is an empty one, and one that serves to highlight his inability to stop investigations rather than his ability to withstand them – or his confidence that they won’t amount to anything. As Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) put it during an appearance on CNN on Wednesday morning, “He’s got something to hide. Because if he had nothing to hide, he’d just shrug his shoulders and let these investigations go forward. He’s afraid of them.”

This seems to have been nonsense all along:

Democrats know Trump’s bluff is absurd, and his congressional allies know it, too. Only the lowest of his low-information base thrills to the sound of his words.

Ultimately, as is so often the case (with the wall and shutdown, most especially), Trump’s own supporters will be disappointed. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Trump perhaps thinks he’ll worry about that another day. For the brief satisfaction of spitting out a nonsensical soundbite, Trump sets himself up for embarrassment and disappointment.

This won’t end well:

A man entirely ignorant about policy and governance playacts his way through his presidency, using language that dense people think is smart and ignorant people imagine sounds erudite. The problem for Trump remains – reality.

And now he must face reality. Trump set himself up. Democrats are calling his bluff:

President Trump called Democratic investigations into his administration and business “ridiculous” and “presidential harassment.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in turn accused the president of delivering an “all-out threat” to lawmakers sworn to provide a check and balance on his power.

That’s the dispute. Oversight is really pointless mean spirited harassment. No, what may seem like pointless mean spirited harassment is simply proper and required oversight. Things don’t work that way! No, calm down. That’s how things are supposed to work.

And that’s how things have started to work:

The oversight wars officially kicked into high gear this week as House Democrats began investigating the Trump administration in earnest. With Thursday hearings scheduled on presidential tax returns and family separations at the Mexican border, and a Friday session to question acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, the lights are about to shine brightly on a president who has, until now, faced little examination from a Republican Congress.

But the Democrats are being careful:

Democrats are moving carefully after spending weeks forming their committees, hiring staff and laying the groundwork for coming probes – mindful that Trump is eager to turn their investigations into a political boomerang as his critics demand swift action to uncover various alleged misdeeds.

But his threat is still out there:

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Trump lambasted “ridiculous partisan investigations” and built a case that undue Democratic oversight would impede progress for the American people.

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

Pelosi (D-Calif.) reacted sharply to Trump’s insinuation that there could be no progress on legislation while lawmakers pry open the doors of his administration.

“Presidents should not bring threats to the floor of the House,” she said. “It’s not investigation; it’s oversight. It’s our congressional responsibility, and if we didn’t do it, we would be delinquent in our duties.”

Trump disagrees:

On Wednesday, Trump dismissed a new probe launched by the House Intelligence Committee into his foreign business entanglements, calling its chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a “political hack.”

“No other politician has to go through that,” he said. “It’s called presidential harassment. And it’s unfortunate. And it really does hurt our country.”

No. Every politician has to go through that, and that helps our country. Each of the three branches of government keeps an eye on the other two. The press, for the people, keeps an eye on all of them. The public keeps an eye on the press. Everyone gets harassed. No one gets away with anything, at least not for very long. That’s the system.

But that doesn’t have to be harassment:

While Democrats show no sign of being cowed by Trump, leaders are trying to walk a deliberate line – wary of being seen as haphazardly tilting at presidential windmills or being too timid in uncovering potential misdeeds.

“We’re going to do our homework first,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), whose panel is scheduled to receive testimony from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross next month. “What Republicans would do is, they would go out and make headlines a week or two before the hearing and then look for some facts to prove the headlines. We’re not doing that.”

They are, in fact, being careful:

On Thursday, a House Ways and Means subcommittee is set to examine the disclosure of presidential tax returns – a subject clearly aimed at Trump’s failure to disclose his own returns.

While Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) is empowered under federal law to inspect any federal tax return, he has not yet moved to invoke that authority and request Trump’s returns – citing the need to build a factual record justifying the request in the expectation that Trump will sue to block it.

The hearing, Democratic aides say, is part of the effort to build that record, but it has frustrated some lawmakers and activists who believe Trump will resist the request whether it comes sooner or later.

“If we’re gonna have a legal fight about it, better to start sooner rather than later,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), reflecting a pervasive sentiment among many Democrats.

But Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), another Ways and Means member who has spearheaded the effort to publicize Trump’s taxes, said it was prudent to move deliberately to avoid the perception of a politically tainted process. He said he expected Neal to request the returns “within the next two or three months or sooner.”

“This needs to be done methodically,” he said. “There cannot be an ounce of ‘let’s go get him.'”

But that doesn’t mean they’ll back off:

Other Democratic investigators are adopting more-aggressive tactics. In one sign of potential conflict, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) plans to have his panel preapprove a potential subpoena on Thursday for Whitaker, who is set to voluntarily give testimony Friday.

Nadler said in a statement that the subpoena was being arranged out of an “abundance of caution” to prevent Whitaker from improperly refusing to answer questions at Friday’s hearing, in which Democrats are expected to ask questions about the irregular circumstances that led to Whitaker’s appointment as former attorney general Jeff Sessions’ replacement.

Meanwhile, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) last week publicly threatened to issue a subpoena for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen if she did not agree to testify voluntarily. On Monday, Thompson announced that Nielsen would testify on March 6.

There’s a lot of that going around:

The House Intelligence Committee’s new Democratic leadership will scrutinize “credible reports of money laundering and financial compromise” involving the businesses of President Trump and those closest to him, the panel’s chairman said Wednesday, in what will be one of several priorities as lawmakers open a fresh investigation into the president’s alleged Russia ties.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) outlined a five-point plan for the committee’s investigation, encompassing Russia’s election interference and the question of whether foreign governments have leverage over Trump, his relatives or associates. Schiff indicated the panel uncovered evidence of such vulnerabilities while under Republican leadership but neglected to pursue it.

“For the last two years, the Republican majority has essentially been missing in action when it comes being a coequal branch of government,” Schiff said Wednesday, promising that Democrats are “not going to be intimidated or threatened” by Trump’s warnings against the Democratic-led investigations. “That ended with the midterms. We’re going to do our jobs.”

He’s not messing around:

The panel has previously released select transcripts to the special counsel, including those from interviews with Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone and Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen. Cohen, who is expected to begin a three-year prison sentence next month for lying to Congress and committing financial crimes, was due to appear before the Intelligence Committee for a closed-door interview Friday. But that session has been postponed until Feb. 28, Schiff said Wednesday.

This is the second time Cohen’s planned testimony has been delayed or canceled. Last month, the House Oversight Committee scheduled a public hearing with Cohen for Feb. 7, but Cohen canceled, citing threats Trump had made to his family. Cohen is still expected to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a closed-door interview Tuesday.

Fine, but they’re not waiting:

The Intelligence Committee held its first formal meeting of the year and promptly voted to share with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, transcripts of witness interviews that it conducted related to Russian election interference. Mr. Mueller has already used two such transcripts to charge associates of the president with lying to Congress, and Democrats believe others could have intentionally misled the committee.

The committee’s chairman, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, also unveiled the parameters of a new investigation, to be pursued in collaboration with the Financial Services Committee and others, of “any credible allegations of leverage by the Russians, the Saudis, or anyone else” over Mr. Trump or his administration.

“Our job involves making sure the policy of the United States is being driven by the national interest, not by any financial entanglement, financial leverage or other form of compromise,” Mr. Schiff said.

They’ll do that, in spite of what they saw from Trump:

Earlier, in a closed-door meeting with House Democrats, Ms. Pelosi had privately lambasted the president.

“He was a guest in our House chamber, and we treated him with more respect than he treated us,” she said, according to a Democratic aide in the room who was not authorized to discuss the private session publicly.

Ms. Pelosi also took a dig at Mr. Trump’s plan, detailed on Tuesday, to invest $500 million over ten years to developing new cures for childhood cancer, characterizing it as paltry.

“Five hundred million dollars over 10 years – are you kidding me?” she said, according to the aide. “Who gave him that figure? It’s like the cost of his protection of his Mar-a-Lago or something.”

Who knows? Spencer Ackerman offers House Intel Democrats Just Restarted and Supercharged the Trump-Russia Probe:

The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia is officially back. And under the panel’s new Democratic management, it’s beyond supersized.

In its first official business meeting of the new Congress on Wednesday – facilitated by the House Republican leadership’s somewhat belated announcement of GOP membership on the committee – the much-watched House panel voted to re-establish an inquiry into what now might be called Collusion-Plus.

It’s about as different as possible from the committee’s previous investigative incarnation under Republican management, which last year released a report absolving the president and his campaign of any culpability in Russian manipulation of the 2016 election and turned its ire on those within the Justice Department and FBI investigating Trump.

Things are, in fact, different now:

Democratic committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) has made no secret of his emphasis on going after financial ties between Trump and Russia and subpoenaing documents thus far untouched by the panel. And on Wednesday, the committee voted to execute another long-standing priority of Schiff’s: giving Special Counsel Robert Mueller the transcripts of all witnesses before the House probe. Misleading the committee and its Senate counterpart has already led to indictments of former Trump advisers Michael Cohen and Roger Stone—and they may not have been the only ones to give false or incomplete testimony.

But an announcement from Schiff shortly after the Wednesday morning vote underscored the ginormous reach of the 2.0 version of the investigation.

Adam Schiff lowered the boom:

The investigation will examine the “scope” of the Kremlin’s influence campaigns on American politics, both in 2016 and afterwards, and “any links/and or coordination” between anyone in the Trump orbit – the campaign, transition, administration, or, critically, the president’s businesses – and “furtherance of the Russian government’s interests.” It will also look at whether “any foreign actor,” not only Russians, has any “leverage, financial or otherwise” over Trump, “his family, his business, or his associates” -and whether such actors actively “sought to compromise” any of those many, many people.

A related line of inquiry will examine whether Trump, his family, and his advisers “are or were at any time at heightened risk of” being suborned by foreign interests in any way. That includes a vulnerability to foreign “exploitation, inducement, manipulation, pressure or coercion.” All that makes it very likely that the committee examines Trump administration policy – think the Syria pullout, or ex-national security adviser and admitted felon Mike Flynn’s attempts to work with Russia’s military in Syria, or Trump’s infamous Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin – through that lens.

But wait, there’s more:

Schiff said that the committee will also probe whether anyone, “foreign or domestic,” currently or formerly sought to “impede, obstruct and/or mislead” the intelligence committee’s investigation or any others, meaning Mueller’s or the Senate intelligence committee’s own inquiries. And that raises the prospect of examining whether the aforementioned witnesses before the panel obstructed it. Fellow Democrats on the committee have told The Daily Beast their desire to get several witnesses back before the panel whose testimony they consider questionable. Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley said last month there were “nine or ten” such witnesses on his radar, including the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

And with questions swirling about how heavily Trump attorney general nominee Bill Barr will withhold Mueller’s final investigative report, Schiff indicated that the committee will form a sort of backstop for the public. He also indicated he’ll work with other House committees, likely the oversight and judiciary panels, “on matters of overlapping interest,” Schiff said.

And he’ll be careful:

“The Committee must fulfill its responsibility to provide the American people with a comprehensive accounting of what happened, and what the United States must do to protect itself from future interference and malign influence operations,” Schiff said in Wednesday’s announcement.

And he’ll be mysterious:

And in addition to what the committee voted to give Mueller, Schiff committed to publicly releasing “all investigation transcripts” before the committee—though he didn’t commit to any timetable, in the interests of “continued pursuit of important leads and testimony.” That corresponds with another move Schiff and the committee made on Wednesday: to delay Friday’s scheduled closed-door testimony of Cohen until Feb. 28, something neither the committee nor the Cohen camp has yet explained beyond vague allusions to investigative interests.

That might turn out to be awful for Trump. But he should have seen this coming. No one was hiding anything. And this isn’t harassment. It would only feel that way. And it will feel that way to Donald Trump for the next two years. He will be grumpy. This will be unpleasant.

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Whatever He Said

Okay, that’s over. He was uncomfortable, saying things others had written for him, things that just weren’t “him” at all, but had to be said. Everyone else was uncomfortable listening to him be uncomfortable. But everyone was supposed to listen. This was the president, Donald Trump, giving his annual State of the Union address, to Congress, officially, and to the nation, the whole point of the thing. Everyone was supposed to tune in. This was the word on how the nation would sink or swim for the next year – everyone’s business – but of course it wasn’t that. Donald Trump has his issues, with the world, and with what others say is reality. These are anger issues. He shares those issues with his angry base. Everyone else has issues with Donald Trump. This is getting dangerous.

The speech itself was, however, nothing much. This president – like all presidents at one time or another – called for unity and compromise and an end to the bickering that goes nowhere – for the greater good. That was boring, and kind of rich, coming from the man who never compromises on anything. He breaks wills. He breaks people. He gets his way. He always gets his way. And then he gloats. But there was no contradiction in any of this. He clarified matters. He’ll change nothing. He will not soften even one of his positions, ever. This is not his problem. And he chooses his words carefully. “Resistance” must end. And all investigations of him, and of his businesses and family and friends, must end too. The words were something like “there can be legislation with investigations.”

That was a threat. Each and every Democrat is now on notice. Cut it out or he’ll veto anything and everything Congress passes – or so he implied. As for the rest of the speech, there were no surprises. Millions and millions of rapists and murderers and drug dealers, and gang members, and ISIS terrorists, are pouring across our southern border, hourly, so he’s sending more troops down there, because this is an invasion. But it’s more than that. These people are now raping our women and murdering our policemen and taking all the good jobs – which makes them the one single cause of all of the nation’s problems – and the Democrats approve of all of this, because they’re evil too. There was a lot of that. There’s always a lot of that.

And that was that. The rest is just detail. Philip Rucker, the White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, covers that detail:

President Trump confronted a split Congress for the first time Tuesday night by delivering a dissonant State of the Union address, interspersing uplifting paeans to bipartisan compromise with chilling depictions of murder and ruin.

Calling the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border “an urgent national crisis,” Trump again called on Congress to approve construction of his long-promised wall – and argued that without the physical barrier, working-class Americans would lose their jobs and grapple with dangerous crime and overcrowded schools and hospitals.

Trump also sounded an unmistakable threat to the new Democratic House majority over impending oversight investigations into his conduct and personal finances, as well as alleged corruption in the administration. The president warned that everyday Americans may suffer from what he termed “ridiculous” probes.

And that was that:

As he delivered his speech from the rostrum of the House chamber, with a stone-faced Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) observing over his left shoulder, Trump stared into a sea of Democratic women wearing bright white in tribute to suffragists who secured women’s right to vote. Together, they formed a vivid illustration of this year’s power shift and the potential political peril for Trump’s presidency.

The tension in the chamber was palpable. As Trump declared the state of the union to be “strong,” the women in white stayed seated while Republican lawmakers, most of them men in dark suits, stood to cheer.

That was a bit startling, but there were other moments:

Rare moments of joint applause came when Trump touted the bipartisan criminal justice law he signed in December, vowed to fight childhood cancer and committed to eliminating HIV in 10 years.

That, however, was puppies-and-kittens stuff, the easy stuff, not the hard stuff:

Trump began and ended his 82-minute speech with a unifying tone that was in conflict with many of his own actions and statements, especially over the past month, one of the more contentious of his presidency.

A president who proudly retaliates against his enemies, taunts his political foes with nicknames and considers himself one of the world’s great counter-punchers exhorted Congress to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”

Trump added: “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”

Just eight hours earlier, Trump trashed Democrats – as well as the late Republican senator John McCain – at a freewheeling lunch with television news anchors. He assailed Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as a “nasty son of a bitch,” ridiculed former vice president Joe Biden as “dumb” for his history of gaffes, and accused Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of “choking like a dog” at a news conference where he denied being in a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, according to two attendees and a person briefed on the discussion.

Donald Trump will be back to that in the morning, because he is who he is:

The president Tuesday sought to paint undocumented immigrants who cross the southern border, often seeking asylum, as an invading force prone to violent crime. “As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States,” Trump said, adding that he “just heard” that Mexican cities were trying to rid their communities of migrants by directing truckloads of them to areas along the border where there is little protection.

“This is a moral issue,” Trump said. “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.” He added, “Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate. It is actually very cruel.”

Illegal border crossings are down significantly from their historic peaks, and some research indicates that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than U.S. citizens do. Still, Trump has claimed that only a border wall would be effective in keeping out the migrants, many of whom are families with children.

Yeah, well, he’s like that, and in a different world:

Trump used his speech to defend his “America First” foreign policy, which has rattled Western allies and sparked some backlash within his party. Several Republican lawmakers have publicly criticized the president’s recent decision to pull troops out of Syria, for instance.

Proclaiming that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump highlighted his recent attempts to extract U.S. forces from foreign conflicts.

The president also touted his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and announced that he would hold his second summit with the dictator on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam.

“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong-Un is a good one.”

That was odd, because Trump started it all:

Trump’s remarks highlighted just how much has changed in the past year. During his 2018 State of the Union address, Trump decried the “depraved character” of the North Korean regime and highlighted its torturous practices.

On Tuesday, Trump made no mention of North Korea’s human rights abuses or other atrocities.

Trump was the one who escalated things until a war seemed certain – he promised to wipe North Korea from the face of the Earth – his red button was bigger that Kim’s red button – they would all DIE if they didn’t bend to his will – and then, suddenly, he admired Kim. Kim could have anything he wanted. They “loved” each other, and Kim would give up all of his nukes – the threat of war was over, but he had made the threat. Clinton never once said it is war with North Korea right now – for certain – unless this or that. George W. Bush didn’t tee up certain war with North Korea. Obama didn’t either – but Trump did. So yes, Trump did save us from certain nuclear war, which he set up all by himself. He saved us from him? What?

This was an odd speech, and Ezra Klein felt a bit of whiplash:

I liked when he called on the country to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” But then I remembered America is only 10 days past the longest government shutdown in history, which Trump triggered when he refused to compromise or cooperate with Democrats. And I remembered that Trump’s acting chief of staff just said the president is willing to do it again.

I liked when Trump said, “I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” But then I remembered that Trump killed an immigration deal – one he had agreed to, and that would have given him his wall while protecting Dreamers – because it didn’t cut legal immigration to the country.

I liked when Trump described his tax plan as “a massive tax cut for working families.” But then I remembered that more than 80 percent of its benefits went to the top 1 percent.

I liked when Trump said that he had “launched an unprecedented economic boom, a boom that has rarely been seen before.” But then I remembered that job growth was exactly as fast before he took office, and he was calling those numbers “phony” and “false” until the day he took credit for them.

That’s whiplash, and so is this:

I liked when Trump said that the nation’s priority should be to “lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs, and to protect patients with preexisting conditions.” But then I remembered that his policies had led to 7 million more people becoming uninsured, and that he had fought (and failed) to pass legislation ending protections for preexisting conditions.

I liked when Trump told Congress that an infrastructure bill was “not an option,” but “a necessity.” Then I remembered that Trump has been president for years now, that he had control of Congress for most of that time, and that he has never prioritized either proposing or passing an infrastructure package. In the Trump presidency, it’s always infrastructure week, and it always will be.

I liked when Trump said that “one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before.” Then I remembered that most of those women won office running against Trump’s agenda, and against the things he’s said about women.

Klein would have preferred this:

Trump’s speech tonight could have been a victory lap. He could have bragged about the roads being repaired and the bridges being built by his infrastructure bill. He could have talked about the lives being saved by his massive mobilization to staunch the opioid crisis. He could have pointed to tax cuts focused on the middle-class, a border wall built in exchange for protecting DREAMers, a health care effort that did what he promised and expanded coverage while cutting deductibles. And all of it would have come in context of the strongest economy since the 1990s.

Instead, Trump delivered his address with Speaker Nancy Pelosi looming over his shoulder, a reminder of the midterm election he just lost. He spoke having delayed the State of the Union due to a government shutdown he demanded, and subsequently lost. He spoke with an approval rating of 41 percent – lower than his predecessor, Barack Obama, during the worst of the Great Recession.

But it didn’t have to be this way:

The Trump presidency carries its direct costs, and it carries its opportunity costs. Its direct costs come in money wasted on high-income tax cuts, in the deterioration of America’s reputation abroad, in the corruption snaking through the executive branch, in the families ripped apart at the border, in the government agencies hollowed by an exodus of talented staff.

The opportunity costs are harder to measure, but no less real. Trump’s presidency has burned time, trust, and political energy that could have gone towards addressing America’s real problems. These are years that could have been spent fighting climate change, expanding health care coverage, investing in R&D, designing a saner and safer immigration system, making the tax code reward work rather than wealth.

These are years that could have been spent making the presidency Trump imagined tonight a reality.

Matthew Yglesias sees the same:

When Trump was a candidate, the big question about him was whether he was offering an exciting new synthesis of ideas or just a mishmash of nonsense delivered by an ignorant and dishonest buffoon. After two years of watching his presidency, we can unequivocally see that the latter interpretation is correct.

And this will not get better:

Trump’s concluding exhortations to “look at the opportunities before us” and recognize that “our most thrilling achievements are still ahead” fell fundamentally flat. Trump does not have any big ideas or grand transformative vision. His administration is essentially a three-legged stool. On the first leg, the slow but steady improvement in economic conditions that happened during Barack Obama’s final six years in office has continued through Trump’s first two. On the second leg, he’s turned over essentially every government agency to business interests who enjoy lax regulation and thus ensure he and his party remains well-funded. On the third, he has anti-immigrant demagoguery to blame for every problem under the sun.

There are no real ideas here to tackle the escalating costs of health care, higher education, housing, and child care. No interest in economic inequality, no real thought about foreign policy, and basically no real energy or sense of purpose. Trump’s key idea was that to maintain peace and prosperity, Congress needs to abdicate its oversight responsibilities and let him be as corrupt as he wants.

This is a man who is faking it:

That’s all he’s left with – a vague hope that the economy holds up and nobody catches him with his hand in the cookie jar. But the investigations are going to happen, and they’re going to be fascinating.

Trump himself, meanwhile, is just dull now.

And that was that. The speech was over – and Donald Trump would be rage-tweeting soon enough, taking it all back. There’s no reason to take this seriously.

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Already Gone

Back in 1971, Karen Carpenter was singing that rainy days and Mondays always got her down – the ultimate Monday song – and that would do now for the Monday after the Super Bowl and before Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address, Tuesday evening. No one wanted to look back to Sunday. The Patriots won again. Tom Brady won again. That seems to happen every year, even if that doesn’t happen every single year. It just feels that way – and the game was dull – neither team was doing much of anything for most of it. Viewers drifted away. The ratings dropped again for the third straight year. And then the Patriots won. There was no point in looking back to Sunday – what everyone knew would happen happened. The same thing will happen next year. This did not make Monday any better.

But there was no point in looking forward to Tuesday:

An 11-year-old boy who says he’s been bullied because of his last name – Trump – will be one of President Trump and first lady Melania Trump’s guests at the State of the Union on Tuesday, the White House announced.

Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Del., who is not related to the president, drew headlines last year after his parents went public to share stories of the abuse they said he had suffered because of his last name.

“They curse at him, they call him an idiot, they call him stupid,” his mother, Megan Trump Berto, told ABC affiliate WPVI at the time.

That’s not nice, but that’s just shorthand. That’s what the majority of Americans call Trump – but decisions like this fill many with dread. Trump is going to play victim, and his base will eat it up. Everyone’s always picking on us! It’s not fair! And everyone picks on Christians too, who are an unnumbered minority now. And everyone picks on white folks too, who are an unnumbered minority now. And everyone has to speak Spanish now, and that’s not fair. And… and innocent young Joshua becomes a symbol for it all. So expect Donald Trump to whine, and expect his base to whine, and then all Republicans. Someone took their country away from them, and they want it back. Innocent young Joshua is their martyr. Donald Trump is their savior. Now no one was looking forward to Tuesday.

That’s okay. Trump is toast:

Many Senate Republicans are deeply opposed to President Donald Trump declaring a national emergency to build his border wall, with enough resistance that the president might ultimately be forced to veto a measure intended to block him.

Interviews with a dozen GOP senators on Monday revealed broad efforts to wave Trump from doing an end run around Congress, part of an effort to avoid a politically perilous floor vote that could place them at odds with the president.

They really don’t want to be pinned down on this:

If the House were to pass a formal resolution of disapproval, the Senate would be forced to take it up with a majority threshold required for passage under procedural rules. That would mean just four GOP defections along with all Democrats would be enough to rebuke the president.

Trump could still win that vote, as no GOP senators would commit to voting against the president, deeming it too hypothetical given the ongoing bipartisan negotiations on border security. But just a handful of Republicans right now are publicly committing to standing with Trump, suggesting the president could face a brutal intraparty fight should he move forward.

That may seem a bit arcane, but Greg Sargent can straighten that out:

Senate Republicans appear to be in a panic about President Trump’s threat to declare a national emergency to realize his unquenchable fantasy of a big, beautiful wall on the southern border. Republicans are reportedly worried that such a move could divide them, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has delivered that warning to Trump in private conversations.

Republicans have good reason to be deeply nervous… According to one of the country’s leading experts on national emergencies, it appears that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can trigger a process that could require the GOP-controlled Senate to hold a vote on such a declaration by Trump – which would put Senate Republicans in a horrible political position.

Trump reiterated his threat to declare a national emergency in an interview with CBS News that aired over the weekend. “I don’t take anything off the table,” Trump said, adding in a typically mangled construction that he still retains the “alternative” of “national emergency.”

But Pelosi has recourse against such a declaration – and if she exercises it, Senate Republicans may have to vote on where they stand on it.

That won’t be fun:

Trump does have the power to declare such an emergency under the post-Watergate National Emergencies Act, which also requires him to identify which other specific statute delegating emergency powers he’s invoking. Trump is expected to rely on one of several statutes that authorize military officials, in a presidentially declared emergency, to redirect funds for purposes that are either “essential to the national defense” or support “use of the armed forces.”

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has privately told Trump that a national emergency is “viable,” and officials at the Army Corps of Engineers are searching for ways to build the wall. This would be challenged in the courts, which would have to decide whether the statute Trump invoked actually does authorize this type of spending.

But Pelosi has a much more immediate way to challenge Trump’s declaration. Under the National Emergencies Act, or NEA, both chambers of Congress can pass a resolution terminating any presidentially declared national emergency.

Nothing is simple:

GOP senators would have to decide between going on record in favor of a presidential declaration of a national emergency for something that everyone knows is based on false pretenses, a move that would be opposed by two-thirds of the country, or opposing it and possibly forcing a Trump veto (which they then would have to decide whether to override), enraging Trump’s base.

This is now quite the mess:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned on Monday that there could be a “war” among Republicans if President Trump declared a national emergency to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Graham, speaking in South Carolina, acknowledged that the idea divides Republicans, who he argued should unite behind the president if he ends up circumventing Congress to build the wall.

“It seems to me that he’s gonna have to go it alone, but there could be a war within the Republican Party over the wall,” Graham said.

Graham added that he would “stand with” Trump if he declares a national emergency to construct the U.S.-Mexico border wall and urged his Republican colleagues to “get behind the president” if he goes down that path.

“To any Republican who denies the president the ability to act as commander in chief, you’re going to create a real problem within the party,” Graham said.

None of that will make it into Trump’s State of the Union address. He’ll say things are fine, even if he is toast, but all of that is procedural. The New York Times’ Michael Tackett and Maggie Haberman keep it simple:

Richard M. Nixon once said, “People react to fear, not love; they don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.”

No president since has deployed fear quite like Donald J. Trump. Whether it is the prospect of a crime wave at the border with Mexico or nuclear war with North Korea, President Trump has persuaded his supporters that there is plenty to fear beyond fear itself.

In an interview as a presidential candidate in 2016 with the author Bob Woodward, Mr. Trump said, “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.”

And he was also quite good at spreading fear, until he wasn’t:

As president, he initially tried to intimidate some of the nation’s strongest allies, including Canada, Mexico, Britain, France and Germany, in trade talks. He demanded political loyalty from Republicans in Congress and drove several who bucked him from office, notably Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. But as his presidency enters its third year, a less convenient truth is emerging: Few outside the Republican Party are afraid of him, and they may be less intimidated after the disastrous government shutdown.

One of the clearest signals came last week when Republicans, backing an amendment offered by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, opposed the president’s call for withdrawal of United States military forces from Syria and Afghanistan as part of a Middle East policy bill. Only three Republicans voted against it.

“I believe the threats remain,” Mr. McConnell said in a speech last week. “ISIS and Al Qaeda have yet to be defeated, and American national security interests require continued commitment to our mission there.”

Mr. McConnell also counseled the president last week against declaring a national emergency to get a wall built on the southwestern border, even as Mr. Trump emphasized that he was reserving that option.

Mitch told him to forget the threats. No on is afraid of him now, if anyone ever was. He’s toast, and this day had to come:

Mr. Trump has found that his lack of experience in politics and diplomacy, which require policy knowledge, team building and nuanced negotiating ability, has left him at a decided disadvantage despite his boasts about his deal-making prowess.

“He’s surrounded in these standoffs by people who have all those boxes checked,” said Timothy O’Brien, the author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.”

“Nancy Pelosi has been doing this for quite a while, Putin has been doing this for a quite a while, Xi has been doing this quite a while. They’ve all been running circles around him.”

“The next question is when he really does realize that for what it is, and I think the answer for that is he never will,” Mr. O’Brien said, “because it would admit either defeat or acknowledgment of his inadequacies, and he will just never do that.”

An inspiring State of the Union address won’t fix that, and it won’t fix this:

Federal prosecutors in New York on Monday delivered a sweeping request for documents related to donations and spending by President Trump’s inaugural committee, a sign of a deepening criminal investigation into activities related to the nonprofit organization.

A wide-ranging subpoena served on the inaugural committee Monday seeks an array of documents, including all information related to inaugural donors, vendors, contractors, bank accounts of the inaugural committee and any information related to foreign contributors to the committee, according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post.

Only U.S. citizens and legal residents can legally donate to a committee established to finance presidential inaugural festivities.

Oops:

The subpoena – issued by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York – indicates that prosecutors are investigating crimes related to conspiracy to defraud the United States, mail fraud, false statements, wire fraud and money laundering.

Well, something was up:

Trump’s inaugural committee raised a record $107 million to fund events and parties surrounding his assumption of office in January 2017, more than twice the amount raised to fund President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural. Contributions were made by a wide array of corporate interests and wealthy Trump supporters, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

And they all wanted something for their money – unless they were just feeling generous. One never knows, but it doesn’t matter. This is over. This guy really is toast.

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Stating the Case

The annual State of the Union address to Congress, with the Supreme Court and Joint Chiefs in the room, along with the vice president and every cabinet member save one – the designated survivor should the bad guys decide to blow up the place – is the big boring event of the year. It’s really an address to the American people – which they generally shrug off and ignore. It’s always the same thing. Things are wonderful. But they could be better. But they’re pretty wonderful, really – because the current occupant of the White House is wonderful as is his or her party. It’s an infomercial. There are no surprises – other than that odd time Lyndon Johnson said Doctor King and his friends were right and something ought to be done – like passing Johnson’s civil right legislation. And then that old white man from Texas said those words – “We Shall Overcome” – which shook things up a bit. George W. Bush said we were all going to die – unless we did something about Saddam Hussein, like right now. That wasn’t very nice and that certainly wasn’t true, but Johnson and Bush were the exceptions. This is an infomercial. In fact, there could be a short form for the standard quite unexceptional State of the Union address: The state of the union is strong. You’re welcome.

No one uses the short form. There was last year:

President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address clocked in at a whopping 1 hour and 20 minutes – making it the third-longest State of the Union in history.

The award for the longest address goes to President Bill Clinton’s final State of the Union in 2000, which was just 9 minutes longer than Trump’s. Clinton spoke for 1 hour and 29 minutes. Clinton also holds the title for second-longest State of the Union – his address in 1995 was 1 hour and 25 minutes.

And no one remembers a word that was said in any of the three, but there is this year:

President Donald Trump heads into his State of the Union address dogged by bruising midterm losses and sinking poll numbers, wounded by a blistering standoff with Democrats. But for the stately speech, he plans to embrace unity – at least for the night.

“Choosing Greatness” is the official White House theme.

This should be interesting. In the past Donald Trump has pretty much promised to unite the country against Muslims and “Mexicans” and those Black Lives Matter thugs, who want to kill policemen, and Colin Kaepernick, and gays too, and urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and those goofy scientists and “Hollywood” – whatever that means – and against anyone who doesn’t consider Jesus Christ his or her personal savior – with the exception of a few Jewish folks – and against the Chinese too, and Mexicans and Canadians and Japan and South Korea and the NATO folks – all of whom have been humiliating us for decades. Perhaps he has something different in mind this time. Choose Greatness! Choose a Wall!

That doesn’t seem unifying, but this is a difficult situation. This year he has been slapped down. This State of the Union will be a week late. Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic speaker of the new Democratic House of Representatives would not invite him to speak until the government shutdown was over. The president must be “invited” by Congress to give this address. He can’t just show up. Congress is a coequal branch of government – the Constitution says so – so that was not his call. He said he’d show up anyway and give the damned address, no matter what she said. She told him don’t even try that – and then someone in the White House sat him down and explained slowly and carefully – using only small words, and perhaps pictures – that she was right. He had to wait for an invitation.

That was humiliating, as was how he ended the government shutdown. He caved. He got no money for his big wall – he got nothing – but he called off the shutdown– so parties could talk about the issues without destroying people’s lives and the economy too – exactly as all parties had agreed to in late December of the previous year, as he had agreed to, until he changed his mind – because that was brave and forceful and noble or something. And then he changed his mind back. And then he was no longer brave and forceful and noble – Nancy was. And then she said he’d been a good little boy and now he could give his cute little speech.

She didn’t put it that way. She didn’t have to. He must have been seething. There was nothing he could do about any of this – other than to make his State of the Union address as nasty as possible. He could rip her to pieces. He could have his revenge.

Nothing is that simple. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey explain why:

When President Trump delivers his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, a Democrat will be seated at the rostrum over his shoulder for the first time.

The presence of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will bring into fresh relief not only the power shift in the Capitol, with the opposition party now able to thwart the president’s agenda, but also the converging pressures on Trump that have brought his presidency to a crossroads.

It seems that everything went wrong:

Trump dealt himself a political defeat with the 35-day partial government shutdown. He has secured no funding to construct a border wall and is preparing to declare a national emergency to fulfill his campaign promise. He is again at odds with the nation’s intelligence chiefs and some senators in his own party. The Russia investigation, which has ensnared several of the president’s allies, appears to be nearing its conclusion. New congressional oversight investigations will start soon. And the race to defeat him at the ballot box has kicked off in earnest.

The idea here is that time is running out and this is a last chance to get at least some things right, but that this may be the wrong time for that:

The challenges mount at a moment when Trump is as unchecked and isolated as ever. Inside the White House, aides describe a chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere reminiscent of the early weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Power has consolidated around presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser who is functioning as a de facto White House chief of staff. With counterweights like ousted chief of staff John F. Kelly gone, some advisers say the West Wing has the feel of the 26th floor of Trump Tower, where an unrestrained Trump had absolute control over his family business and was free to follow his impulses.

That makes Jared Kushner the nation’s last best hope in keeping his father-in-law from doing something stupid, like nuking Honduras or suspending the Constitution, because no one else is there to stop him:

Mick Mulvaney, who has replaced Kelly in an acting capacity, has said he is trying to manage the staff but not the president, according to administration officials. He has told friends that he shuttles in and out of the Oval Office and meets alone with Trump twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening, for about 15 minutes each. Asked at a recent dinner whether he was acting as a gatekeeper, Mulvaney laughed and said, “I’m not trying to stop him from doing things,” according to the officials.

“I don’t think he’s even trying to mask the fact that he is operating as the head of a family-owned business instead of the head of one of the most powerful countries in the world,” said Omarosa Manigault Newman, who starred on Trump’s NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” and worked for him in the White House before having a public falling out with the president after she was fired.

No one questions him, so that makes the State of the Union address a bit problematic:

This raises the question of whether on Tuesday, Trump might use his annual address to a joint session of Congress – and to a prime-time national television audience – to make a course correction and seek to expand his appeal or to burrow in on conflicts with the opposition party, chiefly over illegal immigration and border security.

Trump said last week that his address would be about “unification,” but that theme belies the president’s combative instincts and the indifference – even hostility – he has shown toward congressional negotiations.

“He may mouth bromide of national unity, but if he points to people in the gallery and says, in effect, immigrants of color are coming to kill you, that would undermine whatever pretense,” said Michael Waldman, who as chief White House speechwriter helped pen President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address in the wake of two government shutdowns between 1995 and 1996.

“At other points, presidents facing dropping poll numbers have chosen to be very conciliatory or very optimistic,” Waldman said. “That would surprise everyone here. I don’t know that it’s in Trump’s repertoire. When he does it, it feels like he’s reading under duress from the teleprompter – and everybody knows when he gets back to the White House, he’ll start tweeting again.”

And everyone knows where that leads:

Trump’s natural disposition is to fight, and this is an especially adversarial moment for the president as he battles for building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and chastises congressional Democrats and the news media.

Trump has said he is on the verge of declaring a national emergency, which would trigger executive powers to attempt to redirect some federal funds toward border wall construction without approval from Congress.

“We’ve set the stage for what’s going to happen,” Trump said last week.

Any such move is likely to draw legal challenges and spark a political firestorm, and some administration lawyers have questioned the president’s authority to do so, but plans have been developed for an emergency declaration nonetheless.

The man fights. He doesn’t unify anyone or anything. That’s girly stuff. But nothing is that simple either:

In pursuit of a wall, Trump has few options. He does not want another government shutdown, believing that he was politically pummeled over the last one, and House Democrats have made clear they will not vote to fund wall construction ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline to pass a new homeland security spending bill.

Senate Republicans also are overwhelmingly resistant to declaring a national emergency, according to two senior GOP aides. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) privately cautioned Trump last week that doing so could divide the GOP and told the president that Congress might pass a resolution disapproving an emergency declaration.

Everyone is turning on him, and that means everyone:

Meanwhile, Trump was brooding last week over a former White House aide, Cliff Sims, whose tell-all book depicts dysfunction and disloyalty in the West Wing. Staffers brought excerpts of Sims’s book to the president and defended themselves against their ex-colleague’s portrayal, which advisers said only further agitated Trump, who dismissed Sims as a low-level “gofer.”

Trump has been less focused on the memoir of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) – who wrote scathingly about Kushner but sympathetically about the president – though he told aides that he has not “loved” all of Christie’s comments during his media tour, according to a senior White House official.

The president also was angered by news coverage of his intelligence leaders, including Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, and their testimony before Congress, where they contradicted the president on several national security issues, including North Korea, Iran and the status of the Islamic State. But officials said he did not read the testimony – he only saw the news accounts – and was assuaged when the intelligence officials explained to him what they told senators.

They explained to him what they told the senators. They lied to keep him calm. They hope he won’t go back and watch their on-record on-camera testimony in open session. They said what they said. But as long as they say “we didn’t say that” everything will be fine. He’s not a curious man. These folks said he’s still wonderful and smarter than everyone. That’ll keep him calm, as will this:

Over the weekend, Trump tried to escape the troubles in Washington by making his first trip in two months to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. After spending Christmas at the White House, the president jetted to Palm Beach, Fla., where he played golf with two sports legends.

“Great morning at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods” Trump tweeted Saturday along with a photo of the three smiling.

They’ll tell him he’s the best golfer who ever lived – better than the two of them combined – and the world will be safe from global thermonuclear war for another few days.

That works, but E. J. Dionne sees this:

Trump is an incumbent who behaves as if he is in the opposition. He relishes bemoaning the terrible things happening to the country on his watch – after two years of unified Republican government.

At the same time, it’s hard to recall a president more boastful about how great he is and how he has accomplished more than anyone who has ever held his job, which presumably includes Washington, Lincoln and FDR.

That makes for mixed messaging:

Trump told us years ago in “The Art of the Deal” that he engages in “truthful hyperbole,” which can “play to people’s fantasies.” The problem is that we never know for certain if the fantasist himself believes the tales he is spinning.

The latest fantasy, described Friday to journalists by Trump aides, is that his speech Tuesday will be a unifying, bipartisan call to end old divisions and heal old wounds.

Good luck with that, especially because his aides say he’ll also focus a large part of his speech on immigration.

Will he be able to stay away from his staple references to “criminal aliens,” “drug dealers” and those coyotes he loves to summon?

And how credible can calls for bipartisanship be from a man who predicted Thursday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) might someday be “begging for a wall”?

Dionne is arguing that Trump is trapped:

Trump can never get too upbeat, because he decided long ago that his political project depends on inciting anxiety and anger as well as hostility toward (nonwhite) outsiders. This requires him to conjure a dystopian world because what he fears most is a world in which fear is abating.

There was one truly unforgettable line in his inaugural address: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” But the carnage can never end because Trump must argue he and his wall are all that stand between us and chaos, gangs and coyotes.

And that’s just not true:

This isn’t working. Even members of that base he’s obsessed with expect the president they voted for to solve problems and not simply exploit them. That’s why his core support is shrinking. The survey number that should trouble Trump most is a recent Post-ABC News poll finding that only 28 percent of Americans said they would definitely vote for him in 2020. Maybe that’s why Trump’s lieutenants insist he’ll try something different this week.

But he is trapped:

No matter how hard his speechwriters work to make him buoyant and collegial, Trump needs to depict a country facing a petrifying crisis. It’s the only way he can justify what he does.

But that’s not working, is it? Max Boot thinks he knows why. The Democrats changed. They’re not what they used to be:

President Bill Clinton was determined to show he was not a typical “liberal,” a term that had become an epithet. As governor of Arkansas and candidate for president, he denounced hip-hop artist Sister Souljah for justifying black-on-white violence and refused to grant clemency to cop-killer Ricky Ray Rector, who was executed despite his mental incompetence. As president, he signed a welfare-reform bill over the anguished protests of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and balanced the budget while proclaiming that “the era of big government is over.”

Many Democrats were unhappy with this “triangulation,” but they gritted their teeth because Clinton also attempted to expand health-care coverage and keep abortion legal – and he was better than the Republicans. For the same reasons, Democrats overcame their qualms over the Clintons’ personal conduct, ranging from dodgy financial deals (cattle futures, Whitewater) to his treatment of women, which led to credible accusations of sexual harassment and even rape. Democrats were the feminist party, but they made excuses for Clinton that they would never have made for a Republican.

This was a mess that was all too obvious:

You can argue that in 2016, Democrats paid a heavy price for years of compromises. Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump because her image was already so tarnished. Trump could get away with calling her “Crooked Hillary,” unfair as the charge was, because she had violated government regulations by using a private email server and she had tolerated the appearance of conflicts of interest among Clinton Foundation donors. Hillary Clinton, for her part, had to pull her punches on Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct because she had spent decades excusing her own husband’s peccadillos. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, Trump even fought back by appearing with Bill Clinton’s female accusers.

And then, somehow, that didn’t matter anymore:

The party has shifted sharply leftward since 2016. All of its presidential contenders in the Senate – Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) – voted against a resolution warning against the “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan. Save for Klobuchar, they are all championing Medicare-for-all, free college tuition, a Green New Deal and other expensive programs.

When asked how to pay for this wish list, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) advocated hiking the top marginal income tax rate to 70 percent – and received a largely positive reaction from a party that had spent decades trying to shake its “tax and spend” image.

Axios reports that polling of the Democratic electorate in Iowa “found that ‘socialism’ had a net positive rating, while ‘capitalism’ had a net negative rating.” In this progressive environment, Axios notes, moderates such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and former vice president Joe Biden are questioning whether they can compete for the nomination. And even the progressive candidates have to make abject apologies for offenses such as being pro-Wall Street or tough on crime.

To be clear, Max Boot hates all this as much as he hates Trump’s nonsense, because Boot is an old-fashioned careful conservative – “The United States already has one extremist party; it doesn’t need another.” But he hints at the larger issue here. The state of the union really is strong. It’s simply not the union he prefers – but it may be the union the people actually prefer.

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At Peak Nonsense

Oil is a finite resource and economists for years have talked about a point in time they call “peak oil” – when all the easy-to-get-to cheap oil runs out and the only stuff left is in heavy tar sands and trapped in layers of shale that must be fractured (fracked) to get it out – or it’s in places almost impossible to reach – deep under deep-sea floors or under the polar ice caps. That’s expensive to extract but there’s not much choice left. There’s not much oil left. At some point all of this was cheap and easy – that would be “peak oil” – but now it’s not. What happened? No one realized the “peak” had already come and gone.

It’s the same with any resource. It’s the same with everything. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” The trick is to appreciate the peak moment in anything and everything, and that applies to Donald Trump. He may have just reached peak nonsense:

President Donald Trump claimed Thursday that his intelligence chiefs, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel, told him that they were misquoted when they publicly contradicted him during public on-camera testimony.

He made the claim a day after he tweeted that “Intelligence should go back to school!”

“They said they were totally misquoted and totally taken out of context,” Trump said when asked by CNN if he raised the testimony with Coats and Haspel during his daily briefing on Thursday.

“They said it was fake news,” Trump said.

The President did not provide examples of the areas the intelligence chiefs said they were misquoted. Their testimony was televised, and their written assessment of global threats was made public.

The President could not provide examples of the areas in which the intelligence chiefs were misquoted. None of them were quoted. They were recorded – video with audio. They said what they said. Many saw that live on television. This was nonsense, and then Trump compounded that nonsense:

Trump followed up those comments with a tweet insisting that Coats and Haspel told him their testimony was distorted by the press and that they are all on the same page.

“Just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team in the Oval Office who told me that what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media – and we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc. Their testimony was distorted press,” Trump said on Twitter.

They didn’t say that. He did, perhaps for a reason:

Several national security officials told CNN that while they don’t like the President’s latest attacks on the intelligence community they’re not paying much notice.

Sources said Trump’s comments this week don’t carry the same weight as those he made the day before he took the oath of office comparing the intelligence community to Nazi Germany, which were more demoralizing…

The national security officials said the President is more focused on making deals and using the intelligence for that, while his intelligence chiefs are looking at the same information to make threat assessments.

The president is focused on trade deals and they’re focused on keeping us safe. That’s just how it is, but then there’s Tim Weiner. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He wrote “Enemies: A History of the FBI” and “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” – and he’s a bit unhappy with all this:

The chiefs of U.S. intelligence, an enterprise costing well north of $80 billion a year, report that Iran isn’t building nuclear weapons, North Korea isn’t dismantling them, and the Islamic State is undefeated in Syria and Iraq. Trump batted back their conclusions on ISIS and North Korea in tweets delivered before dawn, in who knows what dark night of the soul.

“The President has a dangerous habit of undermining the intelligence community to fit his alternate reality,” tweeted Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “People risk their lives for the intelligence he just tosses aside on Twitter.”

This is a dangerous business:

The CIA’s spies and analysts are the lead reporters on these issues. All their work contradicts the president’s assumptions. And they are almost assuredly correct. Trump says they don’t know what they’re talking about. Why is he savaging American intelligence and its leaders? He may be playing deaf, dumb and blind to their work, fending it all off as fake news, because he thinks they have something on him. He certainly sees the CIA (and the FBI) as an instrument of a “deep state” conspiring to undo his presidency. And so he denigrates their work and dismisses their leaders as fools and naïfs.

Sure, the CIA has been tragically wrong in the past. The United States went to war in Iraq 15 years ago, in part, because of its supposition that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But it’s just as great a tragedy when it gets it right and the president won’t listen.

We are living through that kind of tragedy right now. If Trump trashes whatever the CIA tells him – just as he ignored its solid reporting that a certain Saudi prince had a contributing Washington Post journalist murdered four months ago – who knows what will happen if we have an actual crisis?

So it comes down to this:

The truth that everyone knew but no one would speak when America’s intelligence chiefs reported to the nation on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee is terrifying: the accumulating evidence that the president of the United States is a danger to our safety and security.

But there’s nothing new here:

Their predecessors have been sounding the alarm for two and a half years.

In August 2016, Mike Morell, a 33-year CIA veteran and the agency’s deputy director and acting director under President Barack Obama, wrote in the New York Times that “Donald J. Trump is not only unqualified for the job, but he may well pose a threat to our national security.” Morell also endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, which surely did not endear him, and the CIA, to Trump. Retired Gen. Michael Hayden told the BBC a few days later that Trump would be “very dangerous indeed” if elected.

Last year, James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence from 2010 to 2017, wrote: “I don’t believe our democracy can long function on lies. … I believe we have to continue speaking truth to power, even – or especially – if the person in power doesn’t want to hear the truth we have to tell him.” And on Wednesday, John Brennan, CIA director from 2013 to 2017, had this to say to Trump in a tweet: “Your refusal to accept the unanimous assessment of U.S. Intelligence on Iran, No. Korea, ISIS, Russia, & so much more show the extent of your intellectual bankruptcy. All Americans, especially members of Congress, need to understand the danger you pose to our national security.”

It’s a fact that Clapper and Brennan personally confronted Trump, two weeks before his inauguration, with what they believed was ironclad intelligence that Vladimir Putin had worked to elect him. It’s a fact that some of their colleagues suspect he may be an agent – unwitting or not – of a hostile power. And it’s a fact that the counterintelligence investigation of the president by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III relies in part on reporting by U.S. intelligence services.

And now Trump is at Peak Nonsense:

Trump sees U.S. intelligence as a direct threat to his presidency – just as the most senior intelligence veterans see him as a danger to this country.

It doesn’t get more absurd than that, and now this nonsense becomes quite expensive:

The Senate, in a bipartisan rebuke to President Trump’s foreign policy, voted overwhelmingly to advance legislation drafted by the majority leader to express strong opposition to the president’s withdrawal of United States military forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

The 68-to-23 vote to cut off debate ensures that the amendment, written by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and backed by virtually every Senate Republican, will be added to a broader bipartisan Middle East policy bill expected to easily pass the Senate next week.

Trump is now beginning to pay the price for his nonsense:

The vote was the second time in two months that a Republican-led Senate had rebuked Mr. Trump on foreign policy. In December, 56 senators voted to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen in what was the strongest show of bipartisan defiance against Mr. Trump’s defense of the kingdom over the killing of a dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

This time, the vote was even more lopsided. Mr. Trump’s declaration of victory over the Islamic State provoked a swift backlash on Capitol Hill in December when he ordered that the United States pull 2,000 troops from Syria and 7,000 from Afghanistan.

Enough is enough:

Mr. McConnell, usually a reliable ally of the president’s, drafted an amendment warning that “the precipitous withdrawal of United States forces from either country could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security.”

Without directly invoking the president’s name, Mr. McConnell countered Mr. Trump’s isolationist policies, arguing that “it is incumbent upon the United States to lead, to continue to maintain a global coalition against terror and to stand by our local partners.”

Now add this:

The Senate’s support for the nonbinding amendment is one of the latest signs of an intensifying and bipartisan appetite to condemn the president’s foreign policy.

Senators Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican and Trump ally, and Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who lost both her legs when her Army helicopter was shot down in Iraq, wrote to the president on Thursday pressing him to develop “a comprehensive plan to protect our Kurdish partners serving in the Syrian Democratic Forces and prevent armed conflict between Kurdish forces and the Republic of Turkey.” Ms. Blackburn represents Nashville, which is home to more Kurdish-Americans than any other city in the United States.

In the House, Representatives Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, and Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, unveiled two bills on Wednesday that seek to bar the Trump administration from abruptly withdrawing troops from Syria and South Korea.

The bills prohibit the use of military funds to reduce the number of active-duty troops serving in Syria below 1,500 and below 22,000 in South Korea, unless the defense secretary, the secretary of state and the director of national intelligence submit assurances to Congress that the withdrawals would not undermine the nation’s security and that allied nations had been consulted, among other stipulations.

That’s both houses of Congress, and then add his new nemesis:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California offered her own condemnation of Mr. Trump on Thursday, after he dismissed his intelligence chiefs’ national security assessments as “naïve” and suggested that “Intelligence should go back to school.”

“One dismaying factor of it all is that the president doesn’t just seem to have the attention span or the desire to hear what the intelligence community has been telling him,” Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference. “For him to make the statement he did yesterday is cause for concern.”

Slate’s Fred Kaplan shares that concern:

What must it be like to work in intelligence under Donald Trump? You delve as deeply as anyone into the area of your specialty, parse data from myriad sources (satellite imagery, communications intercepts, spies, open reports), weave your findings with those of 16 other agencies into carefully crafted reports. Then, the president, the sole customer for your products, denounces you on Twitter as “extremely passive,” “naïve,” and “wrong!” (The exclamation point is his.)

Let’s be clear: U.S. intelligence agencies are far from infallible, they’ve been wrong many times in the past and one of the distortions that the Age of Trump has spawned among the opposition is a romanticized worship of the wisdom and goodness of America’s spies.

But Trump’s latest Twitter jabs go beyond the pale. It would be one thing if he based his critique on conversations with outside experts, perusals of scholarly analyses, or events from his own experience. But of course, he talks with no such oracles, reads nothing worthwhile, and has accumulated no life lessons of any relevance here.

It all comes from Fox News in general and “Fox and Friends” specifically, and Eugene Robinson adds this:

After Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told Congress this week that North Korea is unlikely ever to give up its nuclear weapons, Trump tweeted that there is a “decent chance of Denuclearization Progress being made – big difference.”

After CIA chief Gina Haspel said that Iran is abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal that Trump renounced, the president used a tweet to slap her down: “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong! Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

Take a moment to absorb how crazy this is. The informed assessments of the president’s intelligence chiefs disagree with Trump’s uninformed or misinformed prejudgments – so he attacks and belittles his own handpicked team.

What are Coats, Haspel and all the others who work for Trump supposed to do? Grin and bear it? Shrug and carry on? Quit and write books telling how the chaos and dysfunction inside Trumpworld are worse than we could possibly imagine?

There are no good choices here:

One of the scariest things about Trump’s tweets is that you can read them and immediately know what he’s been watching on television. He often repeats what he has just heard on Fox News – to the point that the hosts of his favorite show, “Fox and Friends,” often appear to be setting the administration’s agenda. If I worked for the president, I’d watch the show to get my marching orders for the day.

So it comes down to this:

The president won’t accept the conclusions of the intelligence community, which are synthesized by thousands of public servants with great expertise in their subject areas. But he treats three blow-dried talking heads sitting on a couch in Manhattan as Delphic oracles.

That’s Peak Nonsense:

How can the nation respect the presidency when it can’t believe a word the president says?

That’s a good question, and the New York Times interview didn’t help:

A defiant President Trump declared on Thursday that he has all but given up on negotiating with Congress over his border wall and will build it on his own even as he dismissed any suggestions of wrongdoing in the investigations that have ensnared his associates.

In an interview in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump called the talks “a waste of time” and indicated he will most likely take action on his own when they officially end in two weeks. At the same time, he expressed optimism about reaching a trade deal with China and denied being at odds with his intelligence chiefs.

He was in another world:

Addressing a wide range of subjects, Mr. Trump brushed off the investigations that have consumed so much of his presidency, saying that his lawyers have been reassured by the departing deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, that the president himself was not a target. “He told the attorneys that I’m not a subject, I’m not a target,” Mr. Trump said. But even if that is the case, it remains unknown whether the matter would be referred to the House for possible impeachment hearings.

That is a worry, but he seems more worried about the cash:

At one point, he scoffed at the notion that he was making money from the presidency, calling the job a “loser” financially.

“I lost massive amounts of money doing this job,” he said. “This is not the money. This is one of the great losers of all time. You know, fortunately, I don’t need money. This is one of the great losers of all time. But they’ll say that somebody from some country stayed at a hotel. And I’ll say, ‘Yeah.’ But I lose, I mean, the numbers are incredible.”

He’s angry that he’s not making money in this effort, and angry with Nancy Pelosi:

Mr. Trump had gambled that he could force her to back down through the government shutdown and was vexed when he could not.

“I’ve actually always gotten along with her, but now I don’t think I will anymore,” Mr. Trump said. “I think she’s doing a tremendous disservice to the country. If she doesn’t approve a wall, the rest of it’s just a waste of money and time and energy because it’s desperately needed.”

But she’s not really the problem:

Mr. Trump has been considering an emergency declaration to spend money on a wall even without congressional approval, an action that even some Republicans have objected to and that would certainly draw a court challenge. “I’ll continue to build the wall and we’ll get the wall finished,” he said.

We will? That was not the issue here:

President Trump wanted to talk. He initially invited A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, to an off-the-record dinner. Mr. Sulzberger countered with a request for an on-the-record interview that included Times reporters. The White House accepted.

That might have been a bad move:

On all matters related to the special counsel’s investigation and questions about his business ties to Russia, Mr. Trump calmly took a nothing-to-see-here approach.

He played down his interest in building a skyscraper in Moscow, calling it a “very unimportant deal.”

He said he never directed Mr. Stone, who was indicted last week, to correspond with WikiLeaks to gain information about hacked Democratic emails.

Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has assured Mr. Trump’s lawyers that he is not a target of the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, the president said. And he added that he was not engaging in witness tampering when he suggested that the father-in-law of Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, should be investigated.

And so on and so forth. He says things, lots of things. Most of it is nonsense. Maybe all of it is nonsense now. In fact, we have reached Peak Nonsense, and that raises an important question. Now what?

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