Toxic Leadership

So, Sunday afternoon it was a long chat with the Director of Theater Warfare Studies at the Army War College in Carlisle, not far from Gettysburg. He decides on all the courses – and teaches one or two of them – the guy who decides on all the seminars and guest speakers and whatnot. He knows a few things. After West Point, it was tank warfare in Kuwait when we threw Saddam out of there, then that posting to Istanbul, to liaise, as they say, then this command and that stateside, mixed with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – operational planning in the end, with our NATO partners in Kabul – and then a stint at the Pentagon. We do talk now and then, sometimes about Erdogan and Turkey – he’s fluent in Turkish and can explain how all the Kurdish subgroups are quite different and how the legacy of Ataturk is now in shambles – but more often we talk about hard power and soft power and national interests – and this was one of those times.

It’s complicated. The Kurds in the north are talking about splitting off from Iraq and forming their own country – after all we did to get a unified Iraq up and running again – and no one knows how that would work. No one knows how they’d ally with other regional Kurdish groups, some of which want to split from Turkey, some of which are full of bad folks – real, not imagined, terrorists. Turkey is pissed off. And how does this relate to the Sunni-Shiite civil war in the rest of Iraq? Some of the Kurds are Sunni, and some, if not most, are Shiites. Hell, some of them may be Buddhists, or Mormons. The Kurds are an ethnic group. Religion is secondary – and the Iraqi Kurds are our best fighters against ISIS – which could destroy the new Iraq – which they want to leave. What the hell are we supposed to do with that?

Meanwhile, we’re about to clear ISIS out of Mosel, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria. Those Sunni assholes will soon be gone. The Kurdish peshmerga will take care of the guys in Syria and Iraq military will take care of the other guys in Iraq, with our help – but of course Iraq is a Shiite nation now. Saddam Hussein was Sunni – even if the original Sunni assholes, al-Qaeda, hated him, because he was too secular. We got rid of Saddam Hussein but we have asked the current Iraqi government to include some Sunnis in their government now – just a few, please, to create something like a unified Iraq. They’re not all Saddam Hussein.

The current Iraqi government shrugs, and they’ve invited other Shiites in to help clear out the Sunni menace. Iran’s elite Quds Force, a Special Forces branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard, has been fighting alongside the Iraqi military, in Iraq, fighting against the bad guys, kind of for us – kind of with us. Iran did help us after 9/11 – but we still decided they were part of the Axis of Evil. They are now our allies against ISIS – or not. It’s complicated. It also complicated because Iranians are Persian, not Arab at all – another ethnic distinction – even if they are Shiites. Farsi, modern Persian, is an Indo-European language, written in Arabic script. They are more like us than we’d like. What are we supposed to do with that?

And then there was President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and his speech that some called bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American – where he spoke out against Islamist extremism, even though Saudi Arabia has sponsored extremist Wahhabi mosques and imams all over the world. Osama bin Laden had been a Saudi citizen, as were fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. Go figure. As for the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships like that run by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Trump promised to stop pestering them about human rights and political freedoms. Trump aligned the United States with the Sunnis. They weren’t Shiites, like Iran – but also like our brand new Iraq. What? Oh well. Shiites sponsor terrorism – Hezbollah and Hamas. Sunnis sponsor terrorism – al-Qaeda and then ISIS – but perhaps they’ll scale that back. That seemed to be the calculation. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a graduate of the Army War College in Carlisle, by the way. It’s complicated.

And then it got stranger. Perhaps Donald Trump didn’t know we run our air operations in the region from our base in Qatar. There are eleven-thousand military folks at the base, our military, and there are fifteen thousand American civilian contractors in Qatar – and the regional headquarters of CENTCOM are there too – and the Saudis and Egypt and the rest of the Sunnis nations decided to punish Qatar. They cut them off – a full blockade. They’d starve them out, for being Sunnis too friendly with Iran and okay with Hezbollah and Hamas. Trump cheered the Saudis on. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to clean up that mess – and Turkey sent food and supplies to Qatar. After all, when Erdogan put down that coup and took full dictatorial control of Turkey, Qatar sent five hundred of their troops to help him out. And Turkey is our ally and a member of NATO too. It’s complicated.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron has just swept the French parliamentary elections – a young and smart compassionate internationalist blew everyone away. Their Trump, Marine Le Pen, will have to get used to permanent obscurity. Macron joins Canada’s Justine Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel, and now the Chinese, with the retired Barack Obama lurking in the background, on the side of compassionate or at least sensible internationalism – and on the side of doing something about climate change and actual free trade. Theresa May had Britain opt out.

That polarizes the world and that’s one pole. The other pole seems to be the grand alliance of Putin and Trump and Erdogan and el-Sisi and the Saudis, and perhaps, in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte – the group of strongmen who take no shit from anyone. Each country has its own version of “America First” of course.

How did it come to this? It’s complicated. We talked about Army Field Manual 6-22 Leader Development – and about “toxic leadership” too. The Army has been worried about that – but that was more than enough talk for a Sunday afternoon. The rest of the family was bored silly. Still, there was Afghanistan.

We’re still there. How does that end? Can it end? Can we win? How would we know if we did?

The issue there may be toxic leadership too. It was time to remind the Colonel of another Colonel, Andrew Bacevich, who latest book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History – because Bacevich knows a thing or two too. The Los Angeles Times was sitting on the table. There was an op-ed there from Bacevich, who knows toxic leadership when he sees it:

Donald Trump cultivated an image of being unambiguously the guy in charge. Now as commander in chief, he is opting for a more detached approach. When it comes to war, he functions less as a full-time CEO than as a part-time board chairman.

This represents a sharp departure from established American practice. Ever since President Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur butted heads over who should run the Korean War, presidents have played an assertive, at times even intrusive, role in managing military matters. Not Trump, however. Although nominally the boss, Trump appears content to let his generals run things.

This is not leadership:

For weeks, his administration has been mulling over a request from Gen. John Nicholson, current commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, to increase the number of U.S. troops committed to that war, which began back when today’s young recruits were still in diapers. To break what he optimistically described as a stalemate, Nicholson was asking for a “few thousand” reinforcements.

Rather than ruling on Nicholson’s request, pending since early February, Trump has passed the buck to the general he has put in charge of the Pentagon, James N. Mattis. Having himself served as senior Marine officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Mattis today pretty much owns both of those wars along with lesser ongoing campaigns in Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

That Nicholson will get more troops appears certain – on Friday, the AP reported an addition of 4,000, although the Pentagon said no determination had been made. In any case, Trump is leaving it to Mattis to decide how many and, by extension, to explain why they are needed and how they are to be employed. Thus far, no such explanation has been forthcoming.

This is not leadership at all:

On Tuesday, when Mattis appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) needled him about the absence of a persuasive rationale. “We’re now six months into this administration,” McCain complained. “We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan.”

The Defense secretary’s response was both forthright and evasive. “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” he conceded, while promising that “we will correct this as soon as possible.” Mattis then unleashed a cloud of blather, promising “a change in our approach” so as “to do things differently” and devise “a more regional strategy” involving “across-the-board whole of government” collaboration. He offered no specifics.

That’s why we’re still there:

The fact is that every couple of years since 2001, policymakers in Washington and commanders in the field (including McChrystal) have trotted out plans “to do things differently” in Afghanistan. Those plans have come in a multitude of colors and a variety of sizes. None have come anywhere close to “winning.”

Trump surely knows this. We cannot say for certain why the president has chosen to distance himself from this war that he inherited. But one possibility is this: Having learned through painful experience to recognize a losing proposition, he has no intention of being left holding the bag for this one.

That’s what’s toxic here:

The savvy Mattis must suspect that he is the designated fall guy. If not, he will discover it next year or the year after when Trump relieves himself of responsibility for a still un-won war and looks to pin the blame on someone else.

And so this goes on and on, until it doesn’t:

For now we await the general with the courage to say: “Some wars can’t be won. Afghanistan falls in that category. To persist further is madness.”

Perhaps it is, and there is this:

Former defense officials say civilian oversight of the military is not just an important check in a healthy democracy, it ensures that larger strategic considerations are taken into account – while others question whether the Trump administration has a broader strategy at all. Former officials also stressed that even if a president delegates some decisions, there’s no avoiding the fact that ultimate responsibility rests with the commander-in-chief.

“I think it’s important that he give troop number responsibility to Secretary Mattis, but not the decision, because to put more troops in after a long period of decreasing is a policy change for America,” retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a commander of US troops and International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, told CNN.

“It is deciding we’re going to push the clock further, we are going to stay involved longer, we are going to engage the American people and the Afghan people. That’s a presidential level decision that he has to own,” McChrystal said of Trump.

And this:

Some, like Stephen Miles, the director of Win Without War, a group focused on promoting a more progressive national security policy, have said they worry this is an attempt by Trump to wash his hands of responsibility for these wars.

“President Trump has delegated this decision to Secretary of Defense James Mattis in a seeming effort to absolve responsibility for sending US troops into harm’s way,” Miles said. “But make no mistake, President Trump is commander-in-chief, and he will be held accountable for once again escalating this endless war in Afghanistan.”

And this:

Derek Chollet, a former defense official in the Obama administration, noted that military decisions have costs, and that civilian leadership has the responsibility for assessing them. That means maintaining a broader view that takes in more than just the military aspects of a campaign, an assessment that is crucial to US national interests.

“If we decide to dramatically escalate our role in Afghanistan, well, that’s got to come from somewhere. Someone has to pay for that and we have to absorb that risk somewhere,” Chollet said.

And if the civilian leadership isn’t engaged, the danger is that the “military doesn’t have the perspective of the entire country in mind,” Chollet said. “If we end up escalating conflicts at the expense of other priorities in the federal budget, in our foreign policy, that’s a problem.”

Yeah, but all of that is so complicated. Trump likes to keep things simple.

Things are never simple:

The United States is becoming more perilously drawn into Syria’s fragmented war as it fights on increasingly congested battlefields surrounding Islamic State territory.

On Sunday, a U.S. fighter jet downed a Syrian warplane for the first time in the conflict. By Monday, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, had suspended a pact used to prevent crashes with the U.S.-led coalition in the skies over Syria and was threatening to target American jets.

Separately, Iran said that it had launched a barrage of missiles into Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. That assault marked Tehran’s first official strike against the extremist group in Syria, and it signposted the reach of its military might against foes across the region.

There they go again – Iran helping us out – but this is serious:

As the major powers on the opposite sides of Syria’s war intensify operations against the Islamic State, the risks of an accidental conflagration appear to be growing by the day.

The United States intervened in Syria to roll back Islamic State forces from a self-declared caliphate that once stretched deep into Iraq. But the American role has unsettled Assad’s allies, threatening confrontation with Russia and thrusting Iranian-backed militiamen in a race with a U.S.-favored rebel force to reach the Islamic State’s eastern strongholds.

But it is what it is:

The U.S. military confirmed late Sunday night that a U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber.

The confrontation took place near the onetime Islamic State stronghold of Tabqa, hours after Syrian government forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. It was the first time that the American military has shot down a Syrian warplane during the six-year conflict.

On Monday, Russia condemned that strike as a “flagrant violation of international law” and said its forces will treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft and drones as targets if they are operating in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River while Russian aviation is on combat missions.

That messes things up:

In a statement Monday, the SDF warned that it would retaliate in the face of further aggression from pro-Assad forces, raising the possibility that the United States could be forced to deviate further from its stated policy in Syria, which involves targeting Islamic State militants only.

If it again comes under attack by pro-Assad forces, Washington may be forced to defend the coalition at the risk of sparking a tinderbox of tensions with Iranian and Syrian troops in the northern province.

“The only actions that we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria – and there have been two specific incidents – have been in self-defense. And we’ve communicated that clearly,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it was suspending the communication channel through which such messages had been shared in order to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircraft operating over Syria.

And then it was time to bash Trump:

In Moscow, officials said that Sunday’s shoot-down was intended as a message aimed squarely at Russia.

Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense and security committee of the Russian upper house of parliament, called the incident “an aggression and a provocation.”

“It looks like Donald Trump’s United States is a source of a brand-new danger both in the Middle East and the world at large,” Klintsevich wrote on his Facebook page.

That’s the result of toxic leadership, or as Fred Kaplan argues, the result of no leadership at all:

Just because the military has the authority to take certain actions, that doesn’t mean it should take those actions, especially when doing so takes a tense conflict up a notch. Sunday’s exchange does, after all, mark the first time in this six-year civil war that a Syrian jet fired on this particular U.S.-backed militia and the first time that a U.S. unit shot down a Syrian jet – thus marking an escalation in the fighting and in America’s involvement. Most presidents would have wanted to think through the next few steps before setting a course of action in response to the Syrian attack. But not this president.

A former senior White House official told me “Obama would have had three NSC meetings on this by now” (we spoke around noon on Monday). Many military officers disparaged Obama for “micro-managing” conflicts. Sometimes they had a point; sometimes they just didn’t like it when a president took his role as commander in chief so seriously. This latest confrontation between American and Syrian air forces stands as a case in point of why presidents sometimes should – even must – step in to the decision-making process. The proper response to the Syrian strafing isn’t a tactical issue or a routine step spelled out in a military field manual. It’s a matter of strategy, of high policy, requiring the decision of the highest policymakers.

In fact, a real leader would have seen this coming:

The major powers in this baroquely complicated war have now set a course toward direct confrontation. This is when diplomats usually step in to calm things down. In a statement released shortly after the incident, a Pentagon spokesman said, “We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Beijing at the time of the incident, called on all the countries involved in the Syrian war to “coordinate their actions,” adding, “We urge everyone to avoid acting unilaterally, to respect the sovereignty of Syria.”

Beyond these gestures, it’s unclear what happens next. One uncertainty involves Trump himself. His advisers are divided on whether to beef up or wind down America’s involvement in Syria; and within the hawkish faction, there are divisions on whether to restrict the fight to ISIS, take more active steps to oust Assad, or do more to contain Iran.

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump derided those who wanted to oust Assad, arguing that ISIS was the enemy and that weakening the regime in Damascus could strengthen ISIS. Assad was also “a bad guy,” Trump often said, but it was silly to fight him and ISIS at once. And yet here we are, fighting ISIS and Assad at once – to what end, and in tandem with what broader political efforts or goals?

That’s a good question:

It’s a particularly delicate time for the United States to lack a basic strategy. As ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa – once its former strong points in Iraq and Syria, respectively – the next phase of the region’s civil war will likely focus on redrawing the boundaries between the two countries. This phase could be even bloodier than the last, as it will determine who controls the land and its economic resources – in short, who wins the political struggles that have undergirded not only the current civil war but myriad wars in the region for decades, arguably for centuries.

Those are big questions, but there are even bigger questions:

What are the United States’ interests in the region? Where we do we want to see this conflict pan out? Who should get what, who should determine who gets what, and how should any of these decisions be made? What should we do to facilitate this process? Or should we just leave and let the local powers work things out? These are issues of statecraft, which U.S. commanders on the ground or even retired four-star generals running the Pentagon are not trained to make and, under the Constitution, are not supposed to make. These are the kinds of looming crises that led many observers, of all political stripes, to warn many months ago that Donald Trump has no business being president.

Perhaps so, but he is president. And things are complicated. And he doesn’t want to believe they are complicated. And he lets others handle the messy details. And then he can blame them when things go terribly wrong. And things have already gone terribly wrong. In short, he’s toxic. But he is the Colonel’s commander-in-chief. That’s the challenge. Try to clean up the mess. At least someone knows what’s what. It was an interesting Sunday afternoon.

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A Sunday Pause

There’s no Sunday evening column – a family reunion far from Hollywood takes precedence.

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Exhausting the Possibilities

America should be exhausted by now. How long has Donald Trump been president? There’s a widget for that – 147 days at this moment – but it seems much longer. Every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” – no one has ever seen anything like this before. Donald Trump did what? Donald Trump said what? Canada is our enemy? America will run on coal from now on? Jared Kushner will bring peace to the Middle East for the first time since Israel became a state seventy years ago, in his spare time? No one knows what to expect next, but that’s exhausting.

That’s also absurd. If every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” then, if words mean anything, every day in Washington is quite ordinary. America will just have to get used to the absurd. Donald Trump will do something outrageous. Donald Trump will say something outrageous. It will look like the world is falling apart, and it probably is – but we’ve all been here before.

It’s that Watergate thing. Everyone remembers the hearings. Everyone watched. Sam Ervin was charming – just a simple country lawyer, but deadly. Fred Thompson got to ask “what did the president know and when did he know it?” Alexander Butterfield dropped a bomb – there was a White House taping system and there were tapes. There really was a smoking gun in there – Nixon working out a cover-up. There was nowhere for Nixon to hide. The Supreme Court later forced him to hand those over. The decision was unanimous. Firing Archibald Cox hadn’t helped. They had Nixon on obstruction of justice of the nastiest of kinds – but the star witness in the hearings was John Dean, the White House attorney. Dean knew everything. Dean revealed everything, because he wasn’t going to take the fall for Nixon. He too had participated in obstruction of justice, at the edges. He’d cop to that – he spent a few months in prison – but he knew he wasn’t the problem, and then everyone knew he wasn’t the problem. Nixon was the problem. The House introduced articles of impeachment. There would be a trial in the Senate and Nixon would be convicted – there were more than enough votes for that. Barry Goldwater and the rest of the Republican leadership walked over to the White House and told Nixon it was over. Nixon resigned.

That will never happen again – maybe. Presidents really shouldn’t fire the guy investigating what they’ve been up to. That looks bad. Trump firing James Comey, the head of the FBI, looked bad. This could be Watergate again – maybe. It was “an extraordinary day in Washington” after all. The New York Times tag-team of Michael Shear and Charlie Savage and Maggie Haberman reports that:

President Trump escalated his attacks on his own Justice Department on Friday, using an early-morning Twitter rant to condemn the department’s actions as “phony” and “sad!” and to challenge the integrity of the official overseeing the expanding inquiry into Russian influence of the 2016 election.

Acknowledging for the first time publicly that he is under investigation, Mr. Trump appeared to accuse Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, of leading what the president called a “witch hunt.” Mr. Rosenstein appointed a special counsel last month to conduct the investigation after Mr. Trump fired the FBI director, James B. Comey.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” Mr. Trump wrote, apparently referring to a memo Mr. Rosenstein wrote in May that was critical of Mr. Comey’s leadership at the FBI.

Trump seems as nutty as Nixon there. He had already said, to Lester Holt, on national television, that the Rosenstein memo had nothing to do with anything – he had already decided to fire Comey, because of the Russia thing. Does he even listen to himself?

Others listen to him:

The nation’s law enforcement agency is under siege, short-staffed because of delays in filling senior positions and increasingly at odds with a president who had already engaged in a months-long feud with the government’s intelligence agencies.

Several current and former assistant United States attorneys described a sense of listlessness and uncertainty, with some expressing hesitation about pursuing new investigations, not knowing whether there would be an appetite for them once leadership was installed in each district after Mr. Trump fired dozens of United States attorneys who were Obama-era holdovers.

They too are exhausted, for good reason:

In the five weeks since Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey, he has let it be known that he has considered firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation. His personal lawyer bragged about firing Preet Bharara, the former United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was let go as part of the mass dismissal of top prosecutors. Newt Gingrich, an ally of the president’s, accused Mr. Mueller of being the tip of the “deep-state spear aimed at destroying” the Trump presidency.

Inside the White House, those close to the president say he has continued to fume about the actions of Justice Department officials, his anger focused mostly on Mr. Rosenstein for appointing Mr. Mueller and on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime political ally whose decision to recuse himself from the Russia case in March enraged Mr. Trump.

Jeff Sessions was supposed to protect him, damn it. He was supposed to stop this nonsense, not step aside:

What the president wanted out of the investigation was simple, several people close to him said: a public statement that he was not under a cloud. What he got instead were reports of Mr. Mueller’s intention to investigate him for possible obstruction of justice…

He is frustrated, friends say, and unsure what to do – apart from tweeting, which he views as the most direct and effective way of defending himself and venting his anger.

That anger burst into public on Twitter late Thursday and continued Friday, as the president repeatedly assailed the legal forces arrayed against him. He accused the news media of pursuing a “phony” obstruction story and accused law enforcement and congressional committees of conducting “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history.” He said the investigations are led by “some very bad and conflicted” people.

By Friday morning, his focus was on Mr. Rosenstein, though the president never used his name, and his tweet oversimplified and misstated the truth.

Rosenstein appointed Mueller to do his thing, without any supervision or input from Rosenstein or anyone in the FBI – as an “independent” counsel. Rosenstein is heading nothing here, but he was still defensive:

The outburst came after an oddly worded statement late Thursday from Mr. Rosenstein complaining about news reports based on leaks.

“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country – let alone the branch or agency of government – with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated,” Mr. Rosenstein wrote.

His statement followed two articles by The Washington Post that cited unnamed officials. One said Mr. Mueller’s investigation had widened to include whether Mr. Trump committed obstruction of justice. The other said the investigation was examining financial transactions involving Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law. After Mr. Rosenstein’s statement, The Post updated the article about Mr. Kushner online so that its first sourcing reference was to “U.S. officials.”

The highly unusual statement raised the question of whether Mr. Trump or some other White House official had asked Mr. Rosenstein to publicly discredit the reports.

That was never going to work:

Reaction was swift. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said she was “growing increasingly concerned” that Mr. Trump might attempt to fire both Mr. Mueller and Mr. Rosenstein.

“If the president thinks he can fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and replace him with someone who will shut down the investigation, he’s in for a rude awakening,” she said in a statement. “Even his staunchest supporters will balk at such a blatant effort to subvert the law.”

She was thinking of Watergate, and there are parallels:

The apparent expansion of Mr. Mueller’s investigation into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice, including by firing Mr. Comey, has raised the question of whether Mr. Rosenstein, a witness to and participant in the events that culminated in that ouster, may also have to recuse himself from overseeing the inquiry.

If he were to do so, or resign or be fired by Mr. Trump, acting attorney general duties for the inquiry would fall to the department’s No. 3 official, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand.

Ms. Brand has never served as a prosecutor. She advised the Justice Department on selecting judicial nominees under President George W. Bush, and she served as a Republican appointee on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

There was Saturday, October 20, 1973 – Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to fire Archibald Cox. He resigned instead. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus did the same. The guy third in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, as acting head of the Justice Department, suddenly, did the deed – and now Rachel Brand is Bork.

She may not be happy about that, but things are equally tense in the White House:

Members of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team were told to save materials relevant to the federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to a memo obtained by Politico and The New York Times.

The instruction, which came from the team’s lawyer, Kory Langhofer, details how both volunteers and aides must “preserve any physical and electronic records that may be related in any way to the subject matter of the pending investigations.”

The time has come:

The memo includes specific instructions for travel-related materials, as well. According to Politico’s reporting, transition-team members must turn over: “emails, voicemails, text messages, instant messages, social media posts, Word or WordPerfect documents, spreadsheets, databases, telephone logs, audio recordings, videos, photographs or images, information contained on desktops, laptops, tablet computers, smartphones or other portable devices, calendar records, and diary data.”

Failure to follow protocol, the memo warns, “Could result in criminal or civil penalties, and could form the basis of legal claims, legal presumptions, or jury instructions relating to spoliation of evidence.”

Things were that tense, and this tense:

President Donald Trump has added another high-profile lawyer to his personal legal team as the special counsel investigation heats up.

John Dowd, who investigated Pete Rose for Major League Baseball and represented John McCain during the Keating Five Scandal, among other high-profile clients, has joined the president’s legal team, according to two people familiar with the pick. Dowd declined to comment Friday.

The addition of Dowd, a 76-year-old former prosecutor who has practiced law in Washington for decades, adds an experienced hand in the investigation. He joins Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s longtime New York lawyer, Mark Bowe, who works with Kasowitz, and Jay Sekulow.

Trump will be prepared, but maybe not prepared for this:

House Russia investigators are planning to call on Brad Parscale, the digital director of President Donald Trump’s campaign, as the congressional and federal probes dig into any possible connections between the Trump digital operation and Russian operatives, congressional sources said this week.

The House Russia investigation is planning to send an invite to Parscale soon, as they begin scheduling witnesses over the summer, sources said. The Senate intelligence committee is also interested in how Russian bots were able to target political messages in specific districts in critical swing states, although it is not clear if Parscale will be called before the Senate panel as well.

The news from the House comes as federal investigators have dug into Jared Kushner’s role overseeing Trump’s data operation – although he has not been identified as a target of the probe. Kushner is expected to talk soon with Senate investigators about the campaign’s data operation.

Parscale played a critical role behind the scenes on the Trump campaign, directing online spending and voter targeting with the use of a highly sophisticated data bank built by the Republican National Committee.

This is not like Nixon and his tapes, but close enough:

Senate investigators in particular have been interested in looking for a link between the prevalence of fake news that supported Trump and was pinpointed in key areas of Rust Belt states that ultimately flipped from blue to red — and helped Trump secure the White House.

“There have been reports that their ability to target this information, some reports at least saying that in the last week of the campaign in certain precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania there was so much misinformation coming talking about Hillary Clinton’s illnesses or Hillary Clinton stealing money from the State Department or other. It completely blanked out any of the back and forth that was actually going on in the campaign,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said at a March 30 hearing.

Warner then added, “One of the things that seems curious is would the Russians on their own have that level of sophisticated knowledge about the American political system, if they didn’t at least get some advice from someone in America?”

That might be Jared and Brad. Perhaps, like Nixon, Donald Trump should brood, but David Remnick says it’s more complicated than that:

The yearning in the character of Donald Trump for dominance and praise is bottomless, a hunger that is never satisfied. Last week, the President gathered his Cabinet for a meeting with no other purpose than to praise him, to note the great “honor” and “blessing” of serving such a man as he. Trump nodded with grave self-satisfaction, accepting the serial hosannas as his daily due. But even as the members declared, Pyongyang-style, their everlasting gratitude and fealty to the Great Leader, this concocted dumb show of loyalty only served to suggest how unsustainable it all is.

The reason that this White House staff is so leaky, so prepared to express private anxiety and contempt, even while parading obeisance for the cameras, is that the President himself has so far been incapable of garnering its discretion or respect. Trump has made it plain that he is capable of turning his confused fury against anyone in his circle at any time.

It’s not just the tweets:

Trump’s egotism, his demand for one-way loyalty, and his incapacity to assume responsibility for his own untruths and mistakes were, his biographers make plain, his pattern in business and have proved to be his pattern as President.

Veteran Washington reporters tell me that they have never observed this kind of anxiety, regret, and sense of imminent personal doom among White House staffers – not to this degree, anyway. These troubled aides seem to think that they can help their own standing by turning on those around them – and that by retailing information anonymously they will be able to live with themselves after serving a President who has proved so disconnected from the truth and reality.

And that reminded him of Alexander Butterfield:

As an undergraduate, at UCLA, Butterfield knew H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and, after serving in Vietnam and being stationed in Australia, he called on Haldeman, who was Nixon’s most important assistant. Haldeman made Butterfield his deputy. Butterfield got what every D.C. bureaucrat craves most – access. He worked on Nixon’s schedule, his paper flow, his travel; he offered advice, took orders, no matter how bizarre or transitory. Butterfield could not have been more “in the smoke” than he was then. He quickly discovered that Nixon was a fantastically weird and solitary man – rude, unthoughtful, broiling with resentment against the Eastern élites who had somehow wounded him, be it in his imagination or in fact. Butterfield had to manage Nixon’s relations with everyone from his Cabinet members to his wife, Pat, who on vacations resided separately from the President. Butterfield carried out Nixon’s most peculiar orders, whether they involved barring a senior economic adviser from a White House faith service or making sure that Henry Kissinger was no longer seated at state dinners next to the most attractive woman at the occasion. (Nixon, who barely acknowledged, much less touched his own wife in public, resented Kissinger’s public, and well-cultivated, image as a Washington sex symbol.)

Butterfield experienced what all aides do, eventually, if they have the constant access; he was witness to the unguarded and, in Nixon’s case, the most unattractive behavior of a powerful man. Incident after incident revealed Nixon’s distaste for his fellow human beings, his racism and anti-Semitism, his overpowering personal suspicions, and his sad longings. Nixon, the most anti-social of men, needed a briefing memo just to make it through the pleasantries of a staff birthday party.

And that led to the tapes:

In February, 1971, Nixon came up with the idea of putting a voice-activated taping system in his offices. Butterfield was charged with the installation. Haldeman told Butterfield that Nixon wanted the system installed on his telephones and in the Oval Office, his office in the Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, and the Lincoln Sitting Room. Kissinger was not to know; neither was his senior-most secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Only a few aides and the President were aware that no conversation was now truly confidential. Tiny holes were drilled into the President’s desktop to make way for the microphones. A set of Sony 800B tape recorders was set up in the White House basement.

It was all for the sake of “history,” Nixon said. Kennedy and Johnson had taped selectively, but Nixon wanted it all for the record – his own records – but no one was to know. “Goddamn it, this cannot get out,” Nixon told Butterfield. “Mum’s the word.”

In the end, of course, the tapes were Nixon’s undoing. In July, 1973, when Senate Watergate investigators asked Butterfield point-blank whether the White House taped conversations, Butterfield decided that his loyalty was not to the “cesspool” of Nixon’s White House but to the truth.

Remnick wonders if that will happen again:

Will Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Sessions, Kushner, and many others who have been battered in one way or another by Trump keep their counsel? Will all of them risk their futures to protect someone whose focus is on himself alone, the rest be damned?

Who knows? Josh Marshall only knows this:

It is very difficult to get my head around the question of whether President Trump will fire Robert Mueller. Trump’s personal attack on Mueller yesterday followed by a personal attack on Rod Rosenstein this morning portends a trajectory that ends with the firing of both men. We don’t know that will happen. The consequences of it happening are so dire that it is hard to imagine it will happen. Yet that appears to be more or less precisely what happened with James Comey. Trump is a man of anger and predictable habits. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume Trump won’t eventually fire both men.

This time, however, there’s no happy ending:

If and when Trump fires Mueller he will have shown through his actions that he will not allow any investigation of Russia and his campaign to go forward. Bob Mueller is one of the most respected law enforcement officials in the country. His integrity and independence are considered beyond reproach. If one insists on looking under the veil at his own political leanings, he is a Republican – both a registered Republican and the appointee, as FBI Director, of a Republican (George W. Bush). If Mueller is not acceptable to Trump as an investigator, clearly no legitimate investigator is or ever will be…

If Trump fires Mueller he will have made clear that no investigation of the bundle of Russia-related issues is acceptable. Anyone who took it on after Mueller would know that as soon as the probe heated up or press reports confirmed the seriousness of the investigation that person would also be fired. Would another legitimate person even accept an appointment after that? It’s hard to see. It may be best to say that accepting an appointment under those conditions would be prima facie evidence of unfitness for the job.

That makes this extraordinary:

I cannot think of a set of facts in which a President makes any clearer that they will use the statutory powers of the presidency to render themselves above the rule of law. That sounds like a hyperbolic statement, I know. But look at the facts we’ve just walked through.

That means that Trump fires both men, and:

At that point, the logical move within our constitutional system is for the Congress to move toward impeaching the President and removing him from office. Whether anything like that is in the offing seems quite doubtful – at least at first.

I actually think it’s possible that such a move would push Trump into severe jeopardy in the Senate. But impeachments don’t happen in the Senate. The trial happens there. Impeachment happens in the House. And there I think the prospects are far more dubious.

At that point we will move in uncharted waters.

Expect it:

My biggest concern – based in part on just observing Trump but specifically how Comey’s firing went down – is that Trump will just do this in the middle of the night (at least figuratively but perhaps literally). With no warning. Perhaps no warning even to himself. I fear that it will all go down quickly and impulsively so no other Republicans outside the White House have a chance to walk him through the consequences of his actions. He does it and it’s a fait accompli.

And that’s that, or not:

My best guess is that Trump will not fire Mueller. But I think I base that on the same mix of experience, logic and gut sense that would have led me to believe that firing Comey was out of the question.

America should be exhausted by now. Every day is “an extraordinary day in Washington” – no one has ever seen anything like this before. But we have. Now we have to see it again. That’s what’s extraordinary here.

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When Sorrows Come

Brush up your Shakespeare. Start quoting him now. Polonius is dead – Hamlet stabbed him – and poor Ophelia “divided from herself and her fair judgment” is dead too. Things are a mess, and getting worse. That’s what Claudius explains to Gertrude – “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.”

Claudius is explaining to Gertrude that it’s all her son’s fault. Hamlet’s screwed everything up, and of course Hamlet has created a political problem for the court – “the people muddied, thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers.”

Scandals will do that. Hamlet had been poking around. He had his anonymous unnamed source – his father’s ghost – and then a whole bunch of circumstantial evidence. Claudius had murdered his father, to marry his mother, Gertrude, and become king. The proof wasn’t clear – but the court really was thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers – and then everyone dies. It’s not a cheery play – and Hamlet was a bit of an indecisive dork – but the sorrows did come in battalions. It was one damned thing after another. Everyone’s thoughts were muddied.

Shakespeare can be useful. Donald Trump’s sorrows are now coming in battalions, and the latest was this:

Vice President Pence has hired outside legal counsel to help with both congressional committee inquiries and the special counsel investigation into possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia. The vice president’s office said Thursday that Pence has retained Richard Cullen, a Richmond-based lawyer and chairman of McGuire Woods who previously served as a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Why would he do that? He’s been the clueless dork outside all the Trump scandals – always out of the loop – lied to and repeating those lies to the press. He’s as clueless as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but he did head the Trump transition team. He had been told about Michael Flynn – the lobbying for Turkey and Flynn’s Russian ties. It may be that Robert Mueller wants to ask him why he was fine with Michael Flynn as the new national security advisor. He may need a lawyer.

This seems a minor matter, but as Kevin Drum notes, it really is one damned thing after another:

The FBI is actively investigating ties between the president’s campaign and a hostile foreign power. Ditto for his former national security adviser. The FBI director has been fired for refusing to kill the investigation. The attorney general has recused himself. The deputy attorney general has appointed a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is busily hiring experts in money laundering. A few days ago Mueller widened the scope of his inquiry to include a criminal investigation of the president. Bipartisan congressional committees are holding hearings. The president himself has lawyered up, and now the vice president has lawyered up too.

This is not normal:

This would not be completely unprecedented if it happened in 2022, six years into Trump’s presidency. But it’s happened in Trump’s first five months. And while we’re all busy gaping at the spectacle of the whole thing, Republicans are trying to take health coverage away from millions of people so they can use the money to fund tax cuts for the rich – in secret.

This has actually caused some of those thoughts and whispers:

As they draft legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Senate Republican leaders are aiming to transform large sections of the American health care system without a single hearing on their bill and without a formal, open drafting session.

That has created an air of distrust and concern on and off Capitol Hill, with Democrats but also with Republicans.

“I’ve said from Day One, and I’ll say it again,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee. “The process is better if you do it in public, and that people get buy-in along the way and understand what’s going on. Obviously, that’s not the route that is being taken.”

This is not normal either:

In theory, the bill-writing process is open to any of the 52 Republican senators, but few seem to have a clear, coherent picture of what will be in the legislation.

Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, offered a hint of the same frustration felt by Democrats seeking more information about the bill.

“I come from a manufacturing background,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’ve solved a lot of problems. It starts with information. Seems like around here, the last step is getting information – which doesn’t seem to be necessarily the most effective process.”

At a Senate hearing on Thursday, Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, said that he also had not seen the Senate bill.

There will soon be a vote on this bill, even if most Republicans don’t even know what’s in it, and it will probably pass. Donald Trump will finally have his repeal-and-replace victory, his first legislation. One sorrow will pass, even if twenty-three million Americans lose their health insurance. Some people’s sorrows are more important that other people’s sorrows. Donald Trump will be relieved.

But it really is one damned thing after another – battalions of sorrows – and Mark Joseph Stern explains another swarm of those:

The attorneys general of D.C. and Maryland filed a suit on Monday alleging that the president’s receipt of foreign gifts and payments violated the Constitution. Two days later, nearly 200 members of Congress also sued Trump for the same purportedly unconstitutional conduct. Trump’s attorneys at the Department of Justice, meanwhile, are busy fighting another emoluments lawsuit, this one filed back in January on behalf of an ethics watchdog and Trump’s business competitors.

The hits keep coming, and that first lawsuit is curious:

Spearheaded by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, this lawsuit elevated the emoluments problem from academic blogs to front-page headlines. The Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause declares that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” CREW reads this clause very broadly, arguing that it bars the president from receiving any payment from a foreign government.

CREW hopes to obtain a court order compelling Trump to divest from his business empire, which continues to receive cash from foreign, state-owned corporations. Its secondary goal is much more modest: The group wants to get to discovery, allowing it to demand financial records from Trump and his business empire – including the president’s tax returns. To get to that point, however, CREW must prove it is an injured party and thus has standing to sue in court. CREW alleges that Trump injured the group by forcing it to divert valuable resources to an investigation into his ethics violations.

This theory of standing was clearly a long shot.

But there are the other two:

The Washington and Maryland suit is especially interesting, since both jurisdictions have a strong case for standing. Maryland argues that Trump’s D.C. hotel is drawing foreign business out of the state, reducing its tax revenue; the District of Columbia alleges the hotel is drawing business away from its convention center, which is taxpayer-owned. The congressional lawsuit, on the other hand, asserts Trump is injuring members of Congress by depriving them of the opportunity to vote on his emoluments. Because the Constitution allows the president to receive emoluments with “the consent of the Congress,” these representatives argue they must be able to allow or prohibit Trump’s acceptance of foreign payments.

That theory is certainly creative, although law professor and emoluments expert Andy Grewal doubts it will succeed since Congress could vote on Trump’s emoluments and has simply chosen not to.

Still, Stern says that’s trouble for Trump:

Both suits will force the Justice Department to continue defending Trump’s profiteering. If one makes it past the standing stage, the plaintiffs will enter the promised land of discovery (and tax returns). The emoluments litigation has already put Trump on the defensive and forced his lawyers to justify presidential enrichment; it now poses a real threat of unveiling his secretive business dealings as well.

And it only gets worse:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, as part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

FBI agents and federal prosecutors have also been examining the financial dealings of other Trump associates, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Carter Page, who was listed as a foreign-policy adviser for the campaign.

The Washington Post previously reported that investigators were scrutinizing meetings that Kushner held with Russians in December — first with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and then with Sergey Gorkov, the head of a state-owned Russian development bank. At the time of that report, it was not clear that the FBI was investigating Kushner’s business dealings.

Now it’s clear that the FBI is doing just that:

At the December meeting with Kislyak, Kushner suggested establishing a secure communications line between Trump officials and the Kremlin at a Russian diplomatic facility, according to U.S. officials who reviewed intelligence reports describing Kislyak’s account.

The White House has said that the subsequent meeting with the banker was a pre-inauguration diplomatic encounter, unrelated to business matters. The Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, which has been the subject of U.S. sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has said the session was held for business reasons because of Kushner’s role as head of his family’s real estate company. The meeting occurred as Kushner’s company was seeking financing for its troubled $1.8 billion purchase of an office building on Fifth Avenue in New York, and it could raise questions about whether Kushner’s personal financial interests were colliding with his impending role as a public official.

Trump’s sorrows mount, but as Adam Raymond reports, Trump is not alone:

Richard Burt, an American lobbyist who worked last year on behalf of Russian interests, attended two dinners with Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, during the campaign, he told The Guardian Thursday. Burt’s claim directly contradicts an answer from Sessions during his Senate testimony Tuesday.

Near the end of the hearing, Senator John McCain asked Sessions if he’d had “any contacts with any representative, including any American lobbyist or agent of any Russian company” during the presidential campaign.

Sessions, who said some version of “I don’t recall” at least 25 times Tuesday, answered slightly more authoritatively. “I don’t believe so,” he said.

Oops. Russia does keep coming up:

In September, The New Yorker reported on Burt’s role helping write President Trump’s first major foreign-policy speech. A couple weeks later, Politico added details about Burt attending two dinners hosted by Sessions. He was reportedly “invited to discuss issues of national security and foreign policy.” Politico also identified Burt as a lobbyist for Russian interests and said he spent 2016 working “to promote one of Vladimir Putin’s top geopolitical priorities.”

This is not the first time Sessions has been caught making false statements under oath about meetings with representatives of Russia. Last time, it took him nearly two months to correct the record.

That’s why he recused himself from all these matters. He will never be able to help Trump with Trump’s many battalions of troubles, not after this. Trump will have to help himself, but Chris Cillizza notes that Donald Trump is not good at that:

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton – the single biggest upset in modern American politics.

That was 219 days ago.

And yet, on Thursday afternoon, Trump sent two tweets attacking his former opponent.

“Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?” Trump tweeted just before 4 p.m. eastern time.

He followed that up 12 minutes later with a second tweet: “Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared & they talk about obstruction?”

What these twin tweets suggest is something we already knew: Trump just can’t quit the 2016 election, and Clinton.

Cillizza carefully reviews what specific events Trump seemed to be referencing, not that it matters:

He spent weeks reveling in his stunning win. He reminded anyone who asked – and lots of people who didn’t – that he had won over 300 electoral votes, a feat people said was impossible for any Republicans. As his 100th day in office approached, Trump handed out electoral maps to reporters coming to talk to him about what he had done for those first 100 days.

Huge framed electoral maps were shown being brought into the White House.

The 2016 election represented Trump’s greatest triumph, his life’s work: Proving that all the elites who mocked him or said he couldn’t do something were mistaken all along. They had to eat their words. He was right. Everyone else was wrong. The end.

And that may make this a Shakespearian tragedy:

He won the election. He is the President – and the most powerful person in the country. That means he gets a level of scrutiny no one else does. Particularly when there is so much smoke swirling regarding the ties between Russia and his campaign, and his decision to fire Comey in the midst of a federal investigation into those allegations.

Trump can try to distract. He can try to deflect. He can complain about Clinton’s alleged transgressions. But what he can’t change is the fact that he is President, and this investigation isn’t going to disappear just because he sent two – or two hundred – tweets about Clinton.

It does seem tragic, and there may be the usual tragic flaw, as Josh Dawsey reports this:

Trump, for months, has bristled almost daily about the ongoing probes. He has sometimes, without prompting, injected “I’m not under investigation” into conversations with associates and allies. He has watched hours of television coverage every day – sometimes even storing morning news shows on his TiVo to watch in the evening – and complained nonstop.

“You may be the first president in history to go down because you can’t stop inappropriately talking about an investigation that, if you just were quiet, would clear you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said last weekend.

Think of Hamlet, aimlessly wandering the halls of Elsinore, talking to ghosts and muttering, mostly to himself, about the unfairness of it all, plotting revenge of various sorts, and sharing his outrage with his few friends, who might not be friends at all, or like Horatio, might want to calm him down:

Just as he has done publicly on Twitter, Trump has told friends and associates that the investigation is a “witch hunt” and that others are out to get him. “It’s basically all he talks about on the phone,” said one adviser who has spoken with Trump and his top aides.

Aides have tried to change the subject, with little luck. Advisers have tried to buck up the president by telling him to be patient, agreeing that it is a “witch hunt” and urging him to just let it play out – and reassuring him, “Eventually, you will be cleared,” in the words of one.

But none of that has changed Trump’s response.

“The frustration he feels is he fully well knows there was no collusion with Russia. And yet, he’s been on the hot seat about it for six months,” said Barry Bennett, a top campaign aide who continues to have ties to the White House. “He’s been told, ‘You’re not under investigation,’ and yet he still wakes up every day to read he’s under investigation. It’s really hard to be accused of being a traitor and take your lawyer’s advice to shut up and not talk about it.”

Perhaps that’s tragic, or a bit sick:

Two people close to Trump note that his is an obsessive personality – whether about businessmen who wronged him over the years, his years-long and fruitless quest to prove President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, to reporters who have written negative stories about him. One transition official said Trump lashed out at reporters over old stories within a day of winning the election in November.

This is dangerous:

Aides say they fear his incendiary tweets and public comments have spurred “countless” leaks of damaging information, in the words of one. Chief strategist Steve Bannon has told others that he believes the FBI is now out to get the Trump administration.

They have urged Trump to stop meddling – but he won’t.

So it came to this:

Trump now has begun fuming about special counsel Robert Mueller, particularly after Mueller hired several prosecutors and investigators with ties to Democrats. Trump has told associates he might fire Mueller, though they don’t believe he will. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Trump was under investigation for obstruction – and that Mueller wanted to interview the national security officials who reportedly had been asked to make false statements.

Trump woke up Thursday morning and appeared to question Mueller’s integrity on Twitter. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!” he wrote. White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters she believed the president was responding to the Post story.

“He is totally in a box now,” one friend said. “And it might make him want to fire Mueller more.”

Hamlet stabs Polonius. “How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!”

Perhaps it won’t come to that:

“If he didn’t send about fifteen tweets that he’s done, he’d be in much better shape than he is right now,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “I kept thinking he would change from these self-destructive tendencies, but he may be the first president in history who brings himself down because he just can’t help himself.”

And everyone dies in the end.

Or maybe not, as Mike Allen notes this:

White House officials and Republicans sweating profusely for several reasons:

They know Trump talked to countless people about ending the Flynn probe, so they assume Comey’s version of events is true.

They assume he did, indeed, ask Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, if they could help derail the Flynn probe, as the Washington Post reported. They also assume he said similar things to other officials.

Nobody has privately mounted a straight-faced argument to us that Trump didn’t say this stuff to Comey or to Coats/Rogers. That’s telling in itself. The fact that the Trump public position – that Comey is a perjurer – isn’t being argued in private.

Any obstruction probe requires context, which means investigators digging into the finances of Flynn, Trump and Jared Kushner. This is the phase of the probe many Republicans have always feared most.

The obstruction probe is simply a new layer to the bigger underlying matters: Did Flynn have illegal or improper contacts, and did the Trump campaign collude with the Russians to influence the 2016 campaign? So the investigation is metastasizing.

Trump’s wife and Chief of Staff had to dissuade him from firing Mueller this week, the N.Y. Times reported. Why fire someone if you have nothing to hide?

Text to Jonathan Swan from a GOP operative close to the White House: “Leak was probably a response to stories about POTUS firing Mueller. He can’t fire him now.”

All he can do is aimlessly wander the halls of the White House, talking to ghosts and muttering, mostly to himself, about the unfairness of it all. When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions, but what can anyone do about that?

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The Old Birthday Boy

Some birthdays are better than others. The fifth through the twenty-fifth are celebrations – life is getting better and better. The fiesta de quince años – Quinceañera – is a big deal out here. It’s a coming of age thing. The little girl turns fifteen. She’s no longer a little girl and there’s a big party – kind of like a debutante ball with fancy gowns and everything – but that’s a Mexican and Central American thing. Valley Girls have Sweet Sixteen parties. Los Angeles is a diverse place – but no woman over twenty-nine admits her age. She’s always twenty-nine, and if she obviously isn’t, it isn’t wise to ask. That can be deadly.

For men, the years simply pass. One turns thirty. One turns forty. One turns fifty, then sixty, and so on. So what? Life may or may not be getting better, but that birthday is just another day. Men shrug. It’s nice when people remember the day and say a kind word, and a small useless present is a nice touch – but it’s still useless. Thank the giver, but the best present is still being around after all those long years. A good birthday is when nothing disastrous happens on that day. That’s a reason to celebrate. It may be the only reason.

Donald Trump turned seventy-one on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, and he had a bad birthday. There must have been a kind word or two, and perhaps a useless present or two – but any present would be useless. He’s so rich that he already owns ten of everything he ever wanted. What do you get the man who has everything? Forget the present. That left the disasters, and he woke up to this on his birthday:

A rifle-wielding attacker opened fire on Republican lawmakers as they practiced for a charity baseball game Wednesday, critically wounding House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and hitting aides and Capitol police as congressmen and others dove for cover. The assailant, who had nursed grievances against President Donald Trump and the GOP, fought a gun battle with police before he, too, was shot and later died…

The events left the capital horrified and stunned, and prompted immediate reflection on the current hostility and vitriol in American politics. Lawmakers called for a new dialogue on lowering the partisan temperature, and Trump urged Americans to come together as he assumed the role of national unifier for one of the first times in his presidency.

Trump later visited the hospital where Scalise was recovering.

That was a hell of a birthday present, and it did change things:

In the hours after a gunman opened fire on a group of Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game, Republicans and Democrats were united on Capitol Hill…

“We can’t let haters win. And we won’t,” said U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pennsylvania.

The shooting prompted a pause in partisanship.

“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, to applause from Congress…

Many lawmakers argued they need to turn the microscope on themselves and dial down political rhetoric that has divided the nation.

“I implore all of us to remember that we are first Americans,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina.

So it was time to dial down political rhetoric, and disarm Donald Trump? He gave in:

“Everyone on that field is a public servant – our courageous police, our Congressional aides who work so tirelessly behind the scenes with enormous devotion and our dedicated members of Congress who represent our people,” Mr. Trump said…

Known for his often direct, off-the-cuff style, Mr. Trump chose his words carefully after speaking with Scalise’s wife.

His speechwriter, Stephen Miller, was editing the remarks until moments before Mr. Trump delivered them, with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner standing nearby.

“We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good,” Mr. Trump said.

A White House official said Mr. Trump is very aware of the delicate nature of what was unfolding Wednesday morning. Mr. Trump worked on his remarks with Vice President Mike Pence, someone who served in Congress himself, to craft a speech that showed reverence and respect for the victims.

So he couldn’t be that naughty Bad Boy even on his birthday, and ended up sounding like that harridan from San Francisco speaking to her far-right colleagues:

“We respect you and your constituents who sent you here,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

But a reminder:

During the campaign, Mr. Trump used incendiary language to describe his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, calling her a “bigot.”

“Such a nasty woman,” he said in a debate.

She, in turn, called Mr. Trump’s supporters deplorable.

“They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic,” Clinton said.

The heated rhetoric has continued since Trump’s inauguration. Comedian Kathy Griffin posted a photo of a decapitated Mr. Trump on social media. And a New York City production of Julius Caesar depicted the assassinated emperor as a Trump lookalike.

Someone’s to blame here:

Shortly after the shooting, New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins pointed the finger at Democrats.

“I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric. The rhetoric has been outrageous in the anger directed at Donald Trump,” Collins said.

But later, he said fault lies with both sides.

“And I think all of us can be a little introspective now. I will be, I promise you. To just say, let’s just notch it down just a couple of decibels,” Collins amended.

That’s nice, but Jeremy Stahl notes it wasn’t all sweetness and light:

Republican legislators and officials spoke throughout the day of “tamping down” rhetoric, without explicitly describing how and what rhetoric. The hints, though, were that the rhetoric that needed to be tamped down was criticism of Trump and his Republican Party, both from Democrats and from a media that the president has called the “enemy” of the American people.

“We’ve got to ratchet down the rhetoric that we’ve seen, not only on social media, but in the media in our 24-hour news cycle,” Rep. Rodney Davis told CNN. “These are the things that have to stop. This is a result of political rhetorical terrorism.”

Okay, now it’s Political Rhetorical Terrorism – a new threat to America – the position of Alex Jones who decided to talk about “media-inspired terror attacks” now:

“We have been warning for months that the mainstream media’s hysterical anti-Trump narrative and the left’s insistence that Trump is illegitimate will radicalize demented social justice warriors and prompt them to lash out with violence,” the site wrote. “It looks like that’s exactly what happened today. The blood is on their hands.”

Stahl wonders about that:

With the empowerment of voices like Jones’ by the president and the Republican Party, it’s not unreasonable to wonder what the GOP means when it asks for toned down rhetoric. Should the media stop publishing stories about the congressional investigations into Trump, or the credibility gap between the president and his main accuser James Comey? Should those investigations be put to a halt, as Trump has suggested in deed with the Comey firing and reportedly in word with his reported desire for special counsel Robert Mueller to also lose his job?

This leaves Donald Trump in an awkward position. He thinks the world of Alex Jones – he has appeared on Jones’ radio show and praised him – so does he now say everyone should stop criticizing him, and that all these damned investigations should stop too – every one of them – before crazed political-rhetorical terrorists get us all killed?

That must be tempting. The alternative is to say he is deeply sorry for all the insults and sneering and incitements to violence – he did say he’s pay the legal fees of anyone who punched out any protesters at his rallies – and from now on he would treat absolutely everyone with respect – no name-calling and no ridicule from now on – period. He’d be a new man.

The first alternative is absurd. Everyone should shut up? This is America. We do have rules about that, but the second alternative is impossible. He is who he is, and this is how he got to where he is and it’s worked so far and the only thing he knows how to do. Is he supposed to change the essence of who he is on the very day he turns seventy-one, on his birthday?

Some birthdays are better than others, but on this one, things got even worse for him:

The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said.

The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did:

Trump had received private assurances from then-FBI Director James B. Comey starting in January that he was not personally under investigation. Officials say that changed shortly after Comey’s firing.

Five people briefed on the interview requests, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said that Daniel Coats, the current director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, and Rogers’s recently departed deputy, Richard Ledgett, agreed to be interviewed by Mueller’s investigators as early as this week.

There’s a reason for that:

Officials said one of the exchanges of potential interest to Mueller took place on March 22, less than a week after Coats was confirmed by the Senate to serve as the nation’s top intelligence official.

Coats was attending a briefing at the White House with officials from several other government agencies. When the briefing ended, as The Washington Post previously reported, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Coats told associates that Trump had asked him whether Coats could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials. Coats later told lawmakers that he never felt pressured to intervene.

A day or two after the March 22 meeting, Trump telephoned Coats and Rogers to separately ask them to issue public statements denying the existence of any evidence of coordination between his campaign and the Russian government.

If so, that’s obstruction of justice. Mueller will get these guys to talk about that under oath, for good reason:

The obstruction-of-justice investigation of the president began days after Comey was fired on May 9, according to people familiar with the matter. Mueller’s office has taken up that work, and the preliminary interviews scheduled with intelligence officials indicate that his team is actively pursuing potential witnesses inside and outside the government.

The interviews suggest that Mueller sees the question of attempted obstruction of justice as more than just a “he said, he said” dispute between the president and the fired FBI director, an official said.

And there’s this:

Mueller is overseeing a host of investigations involving people who are or were in Trump’s orbit, people familiar with the probe said. The investigation is examining possible contacts with Russian operatives as well as any suspicious financial activity related to those individuals.

That’s a hell of birthday present for Donald Trump, but Josh Marshall thinks Trump gave himself this present:

Reading through this article, contemplating that the President less than five months in office is already being investigated for obstruction of justice, what is so mind-boggling is that the case isn’t even really a he said, he said dispute. How do we know the President fired Comey because of the Russia investigation? He said so on national television! And he said something similar the day before, on May 10th, only this time in a private setting.

On May 19th, the Times reported a White House memorandum summarizing Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office. In that meeting President Trump said “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

This meeting was on May 10th, the day after Comey’s dismissal. The memorandum was likely written later that day. In other words, almost immediately after firing Comey, within the following two days, President Trump made at least two statements in which he essentially admitted or more like boasted about firing Comey with the specific goal of impeding or ending the Russia probe. There are various and highly significant complexities tied to the unique role of the President. He is the only person in the country who can, arguably, obstruct an investigation by exercising his statutory right to fire a member of the executive branch. But on its face, this is essentially admitting to obstruction.

And there’s this:

The additional detail about this part of the Russia investigation writ large is that Mueller appears to see this potential obstruction of justice as either including Trump’s requests to DNI Coats and NSA chief Rodgers or in some way evidenced by what he asked these two men to do. The article also says preliminary interviews suggest Mueller’s team is “actively pursuing potential witnesses inside and outside the government.”

What does this mean?

Here’s one guess. We know that President Trump has a number of close friends who he calls frequently to shoot the shit, rant or just unwind. Newsmax owner Chris Ruddy seems to be one of these. There appear to be plenty more. We can see that Trump was far from discreet in sharing his thinking and motivation about firing Comey. He literally said it in a nationally televised TV interview and in a conversation with the Russian foreign minister. We also know that he spent the previous weekend at his Bedminster golf club stewing in his anger at Comey and finally deciding it was time to fire him. Given all this, it seems close to impossible that Trump didn’t stream of consciousness with many of his sundry associates and toadies about what he was planning to do and why.

Those people are all now witnesses.

And there’s this:

The seeming multiplicity of investigations speaks for itself. But it is the repeated reference to “financial crimes” or “suspicious financial activity” that grabs my attention.

Experts will tell you that “financial crimes” can often mean technical infractions, ways of structuring or organizing movements of money, failures to disclose, certain actions that are prima facie evidence of efforts to conceal, etc. This doesn’t mean these are just ‘technicalities’ in the colloquial sense. They are rather infractions the nature of which may be hard for a layperson to understand but which often end up snaring defendants when other crimes are too difficult to prove. But here’s the thing about the Trump world. I don’t have subpoena power. And we’ve yet to assign a reporting crew to the Trump entourage beat full time. But even with my own limited reporting, it is quite clear to me that there are numerous people in Trump’s entourage (or ‘crew’, if you will) including Trump himself whose history and ways of doing business would not survive first contact with real legal scrutiny. It sounds like Mueller sees all of that within his purview, in all likelihood because the far-flung business dealings of Trump and his top associates are the membrane across which collusion and quid pro quos could have been conducted.

A basic perusal of business in the Trump world makes clear that serious legal scrutiny would turn up no end of problems. … If Mueller is taking a serious prosecutor’s lens to Trump’s financial world and the financial worlds of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn and numerous others, there’s going to be a world of hurt for a lot of people. And that is if no meaningful level of 2016 election collusion even happened.

That’s also one hell of birthday present for Donald Trump, the second, and then there’s the third:

The sanctions legislation the Senate passed overwhelmingly Wednesday afternoon would represent a major power grab from the White House on U.S.-Russia policy… It would pave the way for Congress to wield far more control over the country’s fraught relationship with Russia… If it becomes law, the president would find it far more difficult to pursue the kinds of Russia sanctions relief that his team is said to have discussed with Russian officials before his inauguration. Those discussions, and potentially others, are what have gotten this White House in the hot water it’s in now.

You’re not supposed to take things FROM the Birthday Boy, but they did:

Two Republican senators, Bob Corker and Mike Crapo, emphasized to reporters Tuesday that the Russia sanctions bill they helped negotiate gives the president plenty of flexibility to implement his Russia policy. But Corker also affirmed that the proposal would help “reassert congressional authority.” The reality is the proposal would tie the White House’s hand vis-a-vis Moscow on a number of different levels. And it would also give Congress a way to block the president from repealing any sanctions against Russia that it wants to keep on the books, the same way the Senate attempted (but narrowly failed) to do vis-a-vis the sale of weapons to the Saudis.

Republican Senator John McCain, one of the leading proponents of tougher sanctions on Russia, agreed Wednesday after the Senate’s amendment vote that it would give Congress far more control over U.S. policy. “That’s why my folks got heavily engaged” in writing the amendment, he told Newsweek, adding that he’d been one of the lawmakers who’d pushed hard to limit the White House’s discretion. He’s not the only Republican who has openly disagreed with Trump on Russia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, among others, have called repeatedly for taking a tougher line with Moscow.

And the worst thing is that they agree with Barack Obama:

The legislation also would enact into law several sanctions policies against Russia issued by the Obama White House. Because those policies were initiated as executive orders, they could be withdrawn by any future president, regardless of Congress. The amendment would make the policies far more difficult to overturn.

That’s a bummer, as is this:

The amendment would also require the president to impose new economic and defense-related sanctions on Russian entities as punishment for its hacking of the U.S. election and its human rights abuses.

The new Russia sanctions proposal would also allow Congress to review any proposal the president makes to lift or waive sanctions against Russia before it goes into effect. And if Congress voted to disapprove of the move, it could block the White House action. The president could then veto Congress’s disapproval resolution, however, which lawmakers would have to override. But it would add yet another hoop Trump would have to go through if he wanted to soften the penalties against Moscow.

Some birthdays are better than others, but this was the third disaster of the day. Because of that shooting, now Donald Trump has to play nice – no more name-calling and insults and sneering, and no more playful incitements to violence, because people get shot. Someone just got shot – and now that obstruction of justice thing is no longer a vague and unlikely possibility. That’s now an active investigation. Active investigations usually lead to charges – and his “friends” in Congress just told him that they prefer Obama’s way with Russia, not his, and they won’t let him do anything stupid. Damn!

What do you get a man who has everything? Nothing – you take things away. from him. But maybe there was cake. It was his birthday after all.

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Calculated Silence

Calvin Coolidge was known as Silent Cal – “I have found out in the course of a long public life that the things I did not say never hurt me.” He didn’t say much, nor did Herbert Hoover after him. That was probably for the best. Franklin Roosevelt told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself – and that was enough. Everyone remembers that. Harry Truman was “give ’em hell” Harry – “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

Truman was a bit blunt, but following Truman, Dwight Eisenhower was avuncular. He said what needed to be said in the blandest possible way. No one remembers what he said and he liked it that way. The point was to keep the country safe. Words don’t do that.

Since then it’s been Kennedy telling us we should ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country, and Lyndon Johnson being simultaneously crude and folksy, and slyly effective. Richard Nixon will be remembered for insisting that he wasn’t a crook. That didn’t work out of course. Gerald Ford was pleasant – a caretaker president – but Jimmy Carter really shouldn’t have talked of America’s “malaise” and was gone after one term. The first George Bush told everyone to read his lips – but there were new taxes. He was gone after one term too. He should have listened to Calvin Coolidge.

Bill Clinton just talked and talked and talked. He wore the country down, but the second George Bush talked in those Bushisms – “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

What? That wore the country down too. After eight years of trying to find the sense in such nonsense, even if that was always possible, Barack Obama was a relief. No one had to explain what Obama really meant to say. His speeches soared. He offered “hope” – not to millionaires and rednecks, but to most everyone else – and he mostly delivered. There were no scandals either. Along with being polite and courteous, he was careful. He measured his words. He didn’t say anything stupid if he could help it. He didn’t do anything stupid if he could help it. Perhaps he was too timid, but he was No-Drama Obama. Fix the economy. Set up some sort of actual healthcare system for the country – not perfect, but something. Don’t start new wars here and there to fix the world – that can’t be done – and stay out of wars that have been going on for centuries, more or less, and will never end anyway – and don’t pop off about everything that irritates you. There are more important things to do and no one really cares about your mood. Do the job. And don’t tweet.

As Garrison Keillor notes, that’s not Donald Trump:

Now here is a president who communicates in little specks and splats of twitters, leaving his minions to try to say clearly what, if anything, he thinks. The country will weary of this, the dead eyes, the heavy scowl, the jutting chin. The man’s base will discover eventually that he is a carnival hoax, the Cardiff Giant, the Wild Man of Borneo who eats live chickens. You can’t fool 40 percent of the people 90 percent of the time.

Maybe they will discover that hoax and maybe they won’t, but things have changed, and Keillor also notes this:

The man is only trying to please the folks who voted for him. They want him to walk into church and moon the clergy. They’ve always wanted to do it themselves but didn’t dare offend their devout neighbors. So they went along, saying the appropriate things about Community and Cooperation and Tolerance and the Value of Education, which made them miserable because they didn’t believe in any of that stuff. They believed in Family Loyalty and outsiders can go to hell. Be a winner. Race to the buffet table and pick all the beef out of the stew and let the others have the celery and onions.

It’s a selfish worldview but so what? They never had a champion until this guy came along and spoke for them loud and clear, and they eked out a narrow win in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and now they’re making the most of it. That’s how it works.

That may be so, but Donald Trump’s minions still have to go out there and to try to say clearly what, if anything, he thinks. That’s been Sean Spicer’s job, and the questions are endless. What is it with Putin and Russia? Why was James Comey really fired, and will Robert Mueller be fired? Is the point to shut down all investigation of the Russia stuff, or if not, what’s the point? Trump may want to do no more than walk into church and moon the clergy – or in his case, mooning all of any kind of establishment anything – but what comes next? Why do that?

Donald Trump’s minions are in a tight spot, caught between those little specks and splats of twitters, and the demand, from everyone but millionaires and rednecks, for an explanation of what the hell is going on.

That calls for a bit of calculated silence:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeatedly refused to answer questions from senators Tuesday about his private conversations with President Trump, including whether he spoke to Trump about former FBI director James B. Comey’s handling of the investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race.

In a number of testy exchanges with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said he would not answer many of their questions because of a long-standing Justice Department policy that he said protects private conversations between Cabinet secretaries and the president.

The attorney general confirmed elements of Comey’s dramatic testimony before the same panel last week while disputing others. Sessions said he was in an Oval Office meeting in February with Comey and Trump when the president said he wanted to speak to Comey privately – and he acknowledged that Comey came to talk to him the next day about the meeting.

At other times, though, Sessions frequently said he couldn’t recall specifics, particularly when asked about his meetings with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.

He was saying nothing really – that Calvin Coolidge thing – but he was also whining:

The attorney general seemed to understand the import of each of his words as the highest-ranking Trump administration official so far to testify publicly on the FBI investigation and Comey’s firing. During one line of questioning by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), he told her in a flash of anger not to rush his answers because “you’ll accuse me of lying” and said she was making him “nervous.”

Poor baby! But he held firm:

Sessions took particular aim at news reports about a possible meeting he had with a Russian official during an April 2016 event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Trump gave a pro-Russia speech. He acknowledged being at the event and said he had conversations with people there, but did not remember any conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

So cut him some slack:

When asked to explain why he wrongly claimed in his confirmation hearing that he never met with Russians, Sessions said he was flustered by the question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) after many hours of testimony.

He seemed to be saying he was a tired old man, so lay off. There’s much more in this item – some very strange talk about the concept of preemptive executive privilege – but that was no more than strange talk. Jeff Sessions wasn’t talking. Well, he was talking, a lot, explaining that he wasn’t talking about any of this. It was like watching that Tom Stoppard play – “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

The problem was all those questions, but there’s always a solution to that problem:

Television reporters covering the Capitol were told midday Tuesday to stop recording interviews in Senate hallways, a dramatic and unexplained break with tradition that was soon reversed amid a wide rebuke from journalists, Democratic lawmakers and free-speech advocates.

The episode heightened concerns about reporters’ access to Washington leaders in an era when hostility toward the political media has increasingly become the norm. For some, the move to protect senators from impromptu on-camera interviews fell into a wider Trump-era pattern of efforts to roll back press freedoms, whether by barring reporters from interviewing officials or denying them access to briefings, trips and events.

“These are actions that are without precedent in the history of the White House and Congress,” said Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the group’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

“Even if some of the violations are of norms rather than rights, the effect is to make the government less transparent at precisely the moment when congressional oversight has been at its weakest,” Wizner said.

That guy had a point, but this seemed to be no more than casual incompetence:

The controversy started Tuesday around noon, when staffers from the Senate Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery, which operates workspace for networks in the Capitol, told reporters from major television networks, with no warning, to stop recording video in the hallways. Gallery staffers blamed the shift on the Senate Rules Committee, which has official jurisdiction over media access in the upper chamber, according to journalists who shared detailed accounts of the developments on Twitter.

The directive touched off a day of confusion as the Rules Committee denied issuing new restrictions and gallery staffers refused to explain their part in the drama.

“The Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex,” the Rules Committee chairman, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), said in a statement. “The Committee has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment for Members, the press corps, staff and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol.”

Okay, no one knew how this happened, and they fixed it, but some still smelled a rat:

The apparent change in practice came as the number of reporters on Capitol Hill has increased dramatically, reflecting the high stakes Republicans face as they respond to controversies involving Trump and work to advance their legislative agenda…

Several Democrats tied the move directly to the health-care legislation now being debated in the Senate. “Press access should never be restricted unfairly, particularly not when one party is trying to sneak a major bill through Congress,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter.

What’s this about sneaking a bill through Congress? That’s another form of calculated silence that Paul Waldman explains here:

The fate of the American health-care system now rests with a group of allegedly “moderate” senators, who are getting ready to approve a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a repeal bill so monumental in its cruelty that they feel they have no choice but to draft it in secret, not let the public know what it does, hold not a single hearing or committee markup, slip it in a brown paper package to the Congressional Budget Office, then push it through to a vote before the July 4th recess before the inevitable backlash gets too loud.

“We aren’t stupid,” one GOP Senate aide told Caitlin Owens – they know what would happen if they made their bill public. Even Republican senators who aren’t part of the 13-member working group crafting the bill haven’t been told exactly what’s in it.

And that explains the brief try at shutting down the reporters in the Senate hallways:

Everyone assumes that it’s so those senators can avoid having to appear on camera being asked uncomfortable questions about a bill that is as likely to be as popular as Ebola. As Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News tweeted about the secrecy with which this bill is being advanced, “I have covered every major health bill in Congress since 1986. I have NEVER seen anything like this.”

This is how a party acts when it is ashamed of what it is about to do to the American people. Yet all it would take to stop this abomination is for three Republicans to stand up to their party’s leaders and say, “No – I won’t do this to my constituents.” With only a 52-48 majority in the Senate, that would kill the bill.

Waldman doesn’t see that happening:

To understand the magnitude of what they’re doing, let’s focus on Medicaid, because it was supposed to be a sticking point on which some senators wouldn’t budge, particularly those whose states accepted the ACA’s expansion of the program. But according to various reports, the moderates have already caved.

Take Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, a state where more than 175,000 people have gotten insurance thanks to the Medicaid expansion. For a while, Capito made noises about she wanted to preserve the expansion to protect her constituents. “I mean, we can’t just drop them off and wish them good luck,” she said. But no more.

Last week The Hill reported that Capito now supports eliminating the expansion after all – just doing it over seven years instead of the three years that the House bill required. The Charleston Gazette-Mail in Capito’s home state noted that Capito had said she didn’t want to drop all those West Virginians off a cliff, but “Instead, she would drop them off a cliff on the installment plan – around 25,000 per year for seven years.”

She’s not the only one, as there’s Ohio’s Rob Portman:

In his state, 700,000 people gained insurance as a result of the Medicaid expansion. He drafted a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stating his opposition to the House bill because it didn’t protect those who gained insurance from the expansion. Now Portman also wants to phase out the expansion over seven years.

There’s more:

What about Sen. Susan Collins, supposedly the most moderate Republican in the Senate? While Maine hasn’t accepted the expansion due to the resistance of America’s Worst Governor™, Paul LePage, Collins has said that she would like to see her state accept the expansion (with some provisions that make it more uncomfortable for recipients, just so those poors don’t get the idea that they should accept it without shame). But we’ve been through this dance with Collins before – Democrats hope she’ll be a vote for moderation; she talks about how she wants to find a compromise; and in the end she votes with the GOP on every important bill.

But wait, there’s more:

It’s important to know that the Medicaid question isn’t just about the millions who would lose coverage if the expansion is eliminated. Paige Winfield Cunningham reports today that Senate Republicans are considering even deeper cuts to Medicaid than the $880 billion the House bill slashed out of the program. They’d pay for the slower elimination of the expansion by cutting money out of the existing program, so they could get rid of all of the ACA’s tax increases – which mostly affected the wealthy. In other words, they want to cut Medicaid to give a tax break to rich people.

Just as critical, they want to end Medicaid’s status as an entitlement, meaning that the program wouldn’t cover everyone who’s eligible. States would get a chunk of money to spend, and if more people turned out to need coverage, tough luck for them. The states would be offered “flexibility,” which in practice would mean permission to kick people off the program and cut back on benefits. And don’t think this is just about poor people – over half of Medicaid dollars go to the elderly and disabled. That means that they aren’t just undoing the ACA; they’re making things substantially worse for tens of millions of America’s most vulnerable citizens than they were even before the ACA passed.

This really is calculated silence:

Their efforts to hide what they’re doing show that they are still capable of feeling some measure of shame. But it might not be enough to stop them.

Kevin Drum notes this is also a press strategy:

As long as Republicans keep everything tightly under wraps, there’s nothing new for reporters to write about. And if there’s nothing new to write about, it won’t get covered.

This is the same strategy that Donald Trump followed with his tax returns. What are reporters going to do? Write a story every day that tells us Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns? Of course not. So the whole topic disappeared during the campaign except on the rare occasions when something happened to leak out about Trump’s taxes.

And that’s that:

The Senate health care bill will take away insurance from millions. It will slash Medicaid. It will wipe out Obamacare’s promise of coverage for essential benefits. It will gut protections for pre-existing conditions. It will reduce subsidies for the poor and working class. And it will give millionaires a big tax break.

How do I know this? Technically, I don’t. I haven’t seen a draft of the bill. I haven’t watched any hearings. I haven’t read a CBO score. I haven’t heard from the Senate parliamentarian about what she plans to allow under reconciliation rules.

But let’s get serious. I know the bill is going to do these things because it’s a Republican bill. This is what they’ve been promising to do for years. If they had undergone a change of heart, they wouldn’t be keeping their deliberations secret, would they? They’re keeping their bill secret because they know it’s both heartless and massively unpopular, and they want liberals to have as little time as possible to generate any outrage about it. So they’re going to finish the bill, get it on the floor, and vote fast before the working-class public has a chance to realize how badly they’re getting screwed for the benefit of the rich.

Everyone knows this. It’s shameless. But it’s also working. As long as what Republicans are doing stays off the front page and the nightly news, it’s a win.

Drum also notes how things have changed:

This is yet another example of the corrosive effect that Donald Trump is having on Washington culture – which, let’s face it, was not exactly a shining beacon to begin with. Last year Trump taught Republicans that you can keep your tax returns secret with no real explanation, and pay no price. After all, it won Trump the presidency, didn’t it? The lesson here is pretty simple: If secrecy is better than exposure, then keep things secret, and don’t let media pressure sway you into backing down or even bothering to explain yourself.

Greg Gianforte is another example. He assaulted a reporter, and later events (like pleading guilty to assaulting a reporter) made it clear that he knew exactly what he’d done. But on the day before his special election, he released a comically belligerent statement not only denying everything, but blaming the reporter for the whole thing. It was pure Trump. It was a flat lie, he knew it was a lie, and he didn’t care. It helped him win the election, and that’s all that matters…

Keep things secret. Tell whatever lies you need. Flatly misrepresent reality for folks who don’t follow the news and won’t know any better. Don’t waste time with even laughably preposterous policy analysis. Just do what you want to do and say what you need to say.

No good will come of this:

The only silver lining is that, so far, this hasn’t actually worked very well. Obviously it got Trump elected, but it hasn’t passed any bills or produced any major policy impacts. But it might. And if it turns out that it does work, Democrats will fall right in line whether they want to or not. Then we’ll have a country that’s literally run like a game show, not an actual place with the fate of actual human beings involved.

This is why everyone who cares about reality needs to make sure it doesn’t work.

That’s easier said than done, and Josh Marshall has some advice for those who care about reality:

This is awful. But, really, stop saying it’s awful.

There is a perhaps understandable but entirely wrongheaded reflex to shout from the rooftops how this is simply wrong, how it’s not the way to legislate in any way in the public interest, how it willfully breaks all the norms of legitimate legislative behavior. But seriously, stop.

Think about how you look:

This kind of griping operates on the premise that broadcasting a situation in which you have zero power and acting as though your attempted shaming will produce any positive effect will have some positive effect. It won’t. Broadcasting weakness is never an effective strategy. Always choose to fight on a different ground. It looks hapless to try to shame people with acts they are carrying out openly, eagerly and happily. You look stupid. This kind of shaming operates on the unstated premise that the targets of the shaming care or are in some sense failing to grasp the extremity and inappropriateness of what they’re doing. Stated as such, this is obviously not true. It’s a feature not a bug. Pretending otherwise makes you look stupid, weak and hapless. Those are never qualities that political victories are made of.

There is an alternative:

Rhetorically, politically and in the simplest terms of reality, Republicans know there is no justifying this legislation. The public has already spoken. It is overwhelmingly unpopular. They are trying to do it in the dead of night because they know that. They convict themselves by their actions. Not because those actions violate norms but because they are evidence of knowledge of the underlying wrong. They are trying to slip it past everyone, do it by stealth and keep all the details secret until it’s too late.

That’s a political crime, a corrupt bargain. That’s the message, with all the rhetorical color that can be added to it. Don’t say that Republicans shouldn’t feel the license to act this way. They can do it if they want and it is entirely in character. Accept their freedom do it and label it for what it is. Adjudicate it at the next election. Make that clear.

Okay. They know what they’re doing. They choose to do what they’re doing. Forget process. The public has already spoken. Nail them for their choice, not for their calculated and calculating silence. That’s a minor matter, but of course they had no choice. They were caught between Trump’s little specks and splats of twitters, and the demand, from everyone but millionaires and rednecks, for an explanation of what the hell is going on. They chose silence. Calvin Coolidge said the things he did not say never hurt him, and look what happened to him. He became a joke.

Posted in Republican Silence | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mass Hysteria

It seems that someone told Donald Trump that if Richard Nixon had only had the guts to fire Archibald Cox, Nixon would have served out his full second term, in glory. But Nixon did fire Cox, and no good came of that, unless what happened on October 20, 1973, was “fake news” all along and never really happened. Who knows these days? Those who actually watched that unfold are old now. Perhaps our memories are going. Perhaps it never happened. It’s a drag getting old.

But it did happen, and that might explain this:

American Urban Radio Networks White House Correspondent and CNN political analyst April Ryan said on CNN tonight she’s heard from a source there is “mass hysteria” in the White House over the possibility of President Trump firing special counsel Robert Mueller.

Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a close Trump confidante, said tonight – after being at the White House today – that Trump is considering “terminating” Mueller.

Ryan tonight told Erin Burnett, “One of my sources reached out to me just before we went on air and they said there’s mass hysteria in the West Wing about this.”

If he fires Mueller, she added, “it shows that he’s impeding the process yet again.”

That does seem self-defeating but consider the word hysteria – from Latin hystericus “of the womb” – from Greek hysterikos “of the womb, suffering in the womb” – so it’s a “woman” thing. Women get hysterical. Real men do what must be done, with no muss and no fuss – and they certainly don’t run around in a panic. The mass hysteria in the West Wing must have been just the women, and a few girly-men.

Some things have to be done. Trump had already fired Preet Bharara – the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York who was famous for prosecuting Wall Street executives, but who had also opened an investigation into the Trump campaign and the Russians. Trump Tower was in that man’s jurisdiction. He had to go, and Trump had fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, three days after she warned the White House about Michael Flynn. Flynn had lied to the FBI. Flynn had been compromised by the Russians. Flynn could be blackmailed – so Sally Yates had to go. Trump said he fired her because she wouldn’t support his odd travel ban – the first version that the courts shot down, not the second version that the courts keep shooting down. Trump said he fired Yates because she wouldn’t support his first try at that. No one believes that now, not after he fired James Comey, the head of the FBI who was also investigating the Russian stuff, not after he told Lester Holt, on national television, that he fired Comey because of the Russian stuff, not after he bragged to the Russian foreign minister and their ambassador to the United States that he fired that “nut job” and “the pressure was off” – not now. Comey was the third person that Trump fired for looking into things. Robert Mueller would be the fourth.

That’s now a possibility:

A friend of Donald Trump on Monday raised the politically explosive possibility that the president could take action to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the recently appointed special counsel tasked with looking into Russian meddling in last year’s election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.

“I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel,” Christopher Ruddy said during an appearance on PBS’s “NewsHour.” “I think he’s weighing that option.”

Ruddy, who is chief executive of Newsmax Media and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., confirmed his view in a text message to The Washington Post but did not elaborate. Ruddy told PBS that he thinks it would be “a very significant mistake” for Trump to seek Mueller’s termination.

Even the super-right Ruddy knows better, so it was time to cover for the boss:

Ruddy was at the White House on Monday but did not meet with the president, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.

“Chris Ruddy speaks for himself,” Spicer said.

That won’t do:

Ruddy appears to have based his assessment on public comments made over the weekend by a member of Trump’s personal legal team.

During a Sunday television appearance on ABC News’ “This Week,” Jay Sekulow said he was “not going to speculate” on whether the president might order the firing of Mueller. But Sekulow added that he “can’t imagine the issue is going to arise.”

On PBS on Monday, Ruddy said that Trump’s consideration of moving to fire Mueller was “pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently.”

Trump does have the authority to remove the special counsel. Muller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Trump could order Rosenstein to fire Mueller or he could order that regulations that govern the appointment be repealed and then fire Mueller himself.

Trump could go Full Nixon – Saturday, October 20, 1973, all over again. Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to fire Archibald Cox. He resigned instead. Would Jeff Sessions? Would Rod Rosenstein? Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus did the same. The guy third in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, as acting head of the Justice Department, suddenly, did the deed – and his career ended. This could be fun, or not:

The prospect floated by Ruddy puts Rosenstein in an awkward position. He is scheduled to testify before two congressional hearings Tuesday and is likely to face even more pointed questions about the Russia probe and the independence of the Justice Department in light of Ruddy’s comments.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is also scheduled Tuesday to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, a venue where the possibility of firing Mueller could arise. Sessions has recused himself from the Russian probe, a move that gave Rosenstein the authority to appoint a special counsel.

This could be awkward, when considering this:

Republican lawmakers have a warning for President Donald Trump: Don’t mess with Robert Mueller…

“It would be a disaster,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) “There’s no reason to fire Mueller. What’s he done to be fired?”

These folks know their history:

On Capitol Hill, Mueller’s appointment seemed to calm nerves after the firing of Comey. A former FBI director who served for 12 years under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Mueller won bipartisan praise last month, when he was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to oversee the Russia probe.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the notion firing Mueller, would “certainly be an extraordinarily unwise move.”

Collins and other Republicans said they had no indication Trump was considering firing Mueller. But lawmakers were taken by surprise last month when Trump fired Comey, who was then overseeing the Russia investigation.

They could be surprised again, and Trump has those egging him on:

“Bob Mueller’s obviously intent on hiring people who are antagonistic toward this administration,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) “He’s one of Mr. Comey’s closest friends, and it looks like there’s a deliberate orchestration to damage or undermine the president regardless of the basic facts.”

So far, Franks appears to have a minority view among his colleagues. He said Mueller and Comey’s longstanding friendship “constitute an incontrovertible conflict of interest,” and he said it was time to end the “mindless charade.” But Franks stopped short of urging Trump to fire Mueller.

“I’m not sure I’ve developed an appropriate conviction on that yet,” he said.

Franks’ comments echoed similar criticisms lodged by Trump associates in recent days.

“Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Twitter on Monday. “Time to rethink.”

Still, that’s a minority view:

“I think there’s a lot of confidence in Mueller around here,” added Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) “We’ve all dealt with him.”

And a number of GOP lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, reiterated that they remain confident in him to lead an impartial investigation.

“He’s a very much trusted individual and had an outstanding record as head of the FBI,” McCain said.

Even some of Trump’s closest allies in Congress are warning against any rush to nix the Mueller probe.

“I think Bob Mueller’s as good as you’re going to find. I don’t see any reason to remove him now,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has largely defended Trump throughout the investigation into potential Russia ties.

Asked whether Comey’s efforts to nudge DOJ to create a special counsel had tainted the probe, King said, “I think it would taint it more to remove him now.”

Trump may not think that. Donald Trump is a bit idiosyncratic – or idiotic – the words are related. The man never held political office before. His grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He has no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he is, he says, a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all – and starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, and moving on to Crooked Hillary, he humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. His tweets destroyed them. He was a winner. We’d all be winners, again, finally. He’d make America great again.

That was the general idea. That’s not working out – but as Paul Ryan says, Trump is new to all this government stuff, so everyone should cut him some slack.

That’s getting harder. Who is this guy? Ask Marc Fisher, a senior editor at the Washington Post and the author, with Michael Kranish, of Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President and a recent article in Moment magazine – Growing Up Trump – so he’s a man who knows Trump. Isaac Chotiner interviews Marc Fisher, who shares some of that knowledge:

For a guy who takes great pride in being a provocateur and being unpredictable, he’s remarkably consistent. The great satisfaction of covering him as president is that his behavior tracks the main themes of his life prior to the presidency quite beautifully. This is a guy who really does not change much. In fact, in one of our early interviews, he said, “I’m pretty much the same guy I was when I was seven years old.”

That a bit frightening and Fisher offers this array of arrested-development traits:

It’s everything from his unitary focus on himself and what’s good for his bottom line to his very solitary, lonely nature as a man, to his willingness to run over and destroy anyone he sees as being in his way. He is quite consistently someone who likes to make mischief and thinks of himself as a jokester, and yet he’s also someone who deeply believes that he can manage and fix just about anything.

Probably one of the most important aspects of his personality is that for Donald Trump there’s really no tense other than the present tense. He doesn’t think terribly much about the future, and he also doesn’t at all acknowledge that the past exists. I think he almost uniquely, in my experience, doesn’t really experience the past in his day-to-day life. When you ask him about things that took place earlier in his life, it’s almost as if they come fresh to him every time you mention them.

That sounds more like amnesia than a short attention span, but the result is the same:

He has a remarkable capacity for denial, and I think there have been very few occasions over the course of his life where he has been slapped in the face with his failure, whether it was his bankruptcies, the failures of any number of his businesses, the failures of two marriages. In each case, he has an almost admirable ability to move through life as if those losses and failures hadn’t happened, and to portray them not in a crass political spin sort of way but in a really gut-level, deeply felt way as things that didn’t bother him and things that he didn’t even acknowledge.

And that works for him:

By living in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or even acknowledging the past, he has the ability to keep going. People who were with him when his casinos were going down, when he was suffering through these bankruptcies, and being in this humiliating position of groveling before bankers, thought, “He’s going to come in the next day utterly crushed and not willing to face people, and humiliated,” and it never happened. He came in just as bright and bullish as he’d been the day before. That capacity serves him well I think in some ways, but it also divorces him from reality in some ways. That, I think, is what people around him have come to find a bit frightening.

That might explain the mass hysteria in the White House, because they know what’s coming next, what he always does next:

When things get rough, double down and keep going. If you say something that’s wrong or stupid or misunderstood, you don’t apologize, you don’t retract – you just double down and hit that harder and harder. That’s part of his DNA, and so all of these stories about his anger and his lashing out fit in with that. That’s him saying, “I’m going to stick with this. Everyone tells me it’s not a travel ban. It’s still a travel ban to me.” That’s classic Trump.

So he WILL fire Robert Mueller! He will! He will!

That’s the seven-year-old talking and Fisher finds that kind of sad:

Trump doesn’t really have the capacity to enjoy things in the way that most people think of that word. You never see him laughing. He’s not a terribly optimistic person, as we saw in the campaign. I think he relishes the authority, the power, and above all the stature of the position. He loves the trappings of his office, but there’s really no evidence that he loves the day to day of most of the things he does, with the exception of dealing with the media. He has this reputation that he’s cultivated of being tough on the media. He’s certainly staking a lot of the rhetoric of the administration on bashing the media, but there’s nothing he loves more than talking to the reporters and working the press and working his image. That really is more of a source of satisfaction to him than anything that might have to do with policy, which bores him to tears.

And he is also Richard Nixon:

He also has a certain need to be criticized or rejected. Much like Richard Nixon, he’s someone who thrives on his resentments, who sees himself as always under siege, never fully respected. He carries these resentments often about the very same institutions that he craves recognition from, the classic case being the New York Times, which ever since he was just out of college, he has been craving their recognition and respect even as he has done and said things to alienate them and to outright bash them. There’s that push-pull throughout his life.

And it’s always a long time ago:

I think in most cases, he doesn’t know what he’s saying or exactly how it will be perceived. I think in many ways, Donald Trump’s language and thinking are arrested in the 1950s of his youth. One reason he appealed to some of his voters who talk a lot about how he talks like we do and that sort of thing, that’s very much like the attraction that many of those same voters probably had for Archie Bunker when he was on All in the Family, the same kind of attraction they have to a Don Rickles. For a lot of white Americans, there is a kind of freshness to people whose rhetoric sounds like that of normal speech of the 1950s. Most people, their language has changed with the times. Donald Trump’s really has not. In that way, he’s a throwback, which is appalling to some people and refreshing to others. I think he is really quite unaware of the ways in which his language comes off as dated or worse to many people.

And then there the Russia thing:

Donald Trump really doesn’t like things that are beyond his control. He really doesn’t like it when he’s held responsible for things that he can’t massage or manipulate. This Russia thing is exactly that, and so I think to the degree that we are seeing some of his frustration, it’s because he has been stripped of the guardrails and the foundations that have served him decently well for the previous four decades. He had worked with this tiny group of people who he trusted, who had worked with him for three or four decades, and now he’s with a whole bunch of new people. He doesn’t know who he can trust, and he’s really having a lot of trouble with that.

I think overall, he is frustrated that he’s not able to set the agenda or manipulate the message in the way that he’s accustomed to doing.

That makes him dangerous, or idiosyncratic, or an idiot. Eric Anthamatten, who teaches philosophy, art and design at Fordham and the Pratt Institute, prefers the third word:

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, respondents were asked what word immediately came to mind when they thought of Donald Trump: The No. 1 response was “idiot.” This was followed by “incompetent,” “liar,” “leader,” “unqualified,” and finally, in sixth place, “president.” Superlatives like “great” and a few unprintable descriptives came further down on the list. But let us focus on the first.

Contemporary uses of the word “idiot” usually highlight a subject’s lack of intelligence, ignorance, foolishness or buffoonery. The word’s etymological roots, however, going back to ancient Greece, suggest that, in the case of the president, it may be even more apropos than it might first seem.

Yes, the Greeks had a word for this:

In ancient Greek society, an idiotes was a layperson who lacked professional skills. The idiot contributed nothing to public life or the common good. His existence depended on the skill and labor of others; he was a leech sucking the lifeblood from the social body. Related to this, idiocy (from the root idios, “one’s own”) was the state of a private or self-centered person. This contrasted with the status of the public citizen, or polites, such that to be an idiot was to be withdrawn, isolated and selfish, to not participate in the public, political life of the city-state. In Greek society, the condition of idiocy was seen as peculiar and strange (a meaning that is retained in the English word “idiosyncratic”); thus “idiot” was a term of reproach and disdain.

That was as it should be:

The education scholar Walter C. Parker sought to invoke this original meaning in his 2005 essay “Teaching Against Idiocy.” In it, he writes that “when a person’s behavior became idiotic – concerned myopically with private things and unmindful of common things – then the person was believed to be like a rudderless ship, without consequence save for the danger it posed to others.” The idiot, then, was a threat to the city-state, to public life, and to the bonds that make communication and community possible. Parker continues: “An idiot is suicidal in a certain way, definitely self-defeating, for the idiot does not know that privacy and individual autonomy are entirely dependent on the community.” Parker also notes that the idiot has not yet reached “puberty,” or the transition to public life.

Fisher was onto something. The idiot is always seven years old and dangerous:

The idiot, understood in this sense, undermines not only community but also communication. An “idiom” is a phrase peculiar to a specific language or place. The idiot speaks only in idioms, though these function for him not as colorful additions to a language or culture, but are understood by him alone. To members of the community, his utterances are the babblings of a baby or a madman…

Given all this, the idiot can be defined as such: a prepubescent, parasitic solipsist who talks only to himself.

He also talks to the other few idiots, the Archie Bunker fans who “get” his idioms, but miss the adult stuff:

Humans evolved for the most part by putting community first and the individual second. Despite many of the political narratives that posit a mythological “state of nature,” in which selfish, violent, atomistic individuals must forgo their natural liberties and make compromises and contracts to secure their own existence, scientific evidence simply does not support this. For creatures like us, self-preservation was always also social preservation.

The idiot does not understand this, and thus does not understand how he came to be, how he is sustained and how he is part of a larger ecology. The idiot cares nothing about public life, much less public service. The idiot cares only about his own name. The idiot, by way of his actions, can destroy the social body. Eventually, the idiot destroys himself, but in so doing, potentially annihilates everyone along with him. He is a ticking time bomb in the middle of the public square.

And the first thing he does is fire Robert Mueller – except for Donald Trump, that’s not the first thing. He fired three others already. Each week, year after year, each episode of The Apprentice and the Celebrity Apprentice, ended with the same words – “You’re fired.”

There’s nothing new here – except that this is now a threat to public life, and to the bonds that make communication and community possible. That explains the mass hysteria. The masses have spoken, or will speak.

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