Adventures in Crisis Management

There’s a reason that once you get past the odd childproof cap on your little bottle of Tylenol there’s that foil safety seal to get through, even if you are in pain. In 1982 someone was slipping cyanide into a few of the capsules. Three people in Chicago died, and then a few others. Johnson and Johnson had to do something, and they did that, and now everyone does that. The clever cap and the safety seal were expensive but that made them the good guys, and then the leader in consumer safety. The initial cost, in millions of dollars, was worth it, and now they sell tons of that stuff. In business schools they use this as a case study in effective crisis management, and now there are consulting firms that specialize in nothing but crisis management.

Those consultants are necessary. Two years ago the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain didn’t seem to use them – their “fresh” ingredients made a lot of people sick, and promising to do better and a few freebies impressed no one. They’re still recovering, and then there’s Ralph Nader. The Ford Pinto, with the gas tank just behind the rear bumper, is long gone. The cars exploded. Ford gave up, and Chevrolet redesigned their original Corvair, which tended to swap ends on slick roads, but no one would buy the new one, which didn’t. They didn’t explain things well enough. Ralph had. The key to effective crisis management is demonstrating, without question, that you’re the good guy here – perhaps sorry for your mistakes but more than willing to fix things at any cost. Be humble, but be aggressive. You’re the good guy. You always were.

Donald Trump should know such things. They teach crisis management at Warton. He went there, but he only seemed to have picked up the aggressive part of effective crisis management, not the humble part. He fired his rabidly aggressive national security advisor, Mike Flynn, when the CIA and FBI and all the rest leaked to the press that this guy had lied about how close he was to the Russians and they could easily blackmail him. They had the goods on the guy.

That’s a crisis, but Trump seems to have sat on the information for three weeks, and still says Flynn did nothing wrong, really. But he let him go. But it wasn’t the Russia thing. It was lying to the vice president and the chief of staff and the press secretary about his chats with the Russians. They went out and said that Flynn never talked to the Russians about Obama’s sanctions for messing with our election, and he never hinted to them that those would be lifted soon enough. He had. Pence and Priebus and Spencer were hung out to dry – so Trump cut Flynn lose, not that what he had done was wrong. It was the lies. He screwed those three guys. It was a matter of trust.

And that solved the problem, but it didn’t, because the problem wasn’t Flynn. Trump misunderstood the crisis, which Josh Marshall summarizes nicely:

The role of Russia in the 2016 election and the President’s relationship to Russia has been the un-ignorable question hanging over President Trump for months. Flynn’s resignation does not come close to resolving it. It is highly likely that the Flynn/Russia channel was authorized by the President himself. There’s much more to come.

That came the next day in one more blockbuster story from the New York Times:

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

Four independent sources saying the same thing isn’t fake news, and this wasn’t good news:

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time that they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. At one point last summer, Mr. Trump said at a campaign event that he hoped Russian intelligence services had stolen Hillary Clinton’s emails and would make them public.

This wasn’t fire, but the smoke was thick, and there were specifics:

The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Russia and Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls…

Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the accounts of the American officials in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “This is absurd,” he said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.”

Mr. Manafort added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.'”

To borrow a term from the Watergate era, that’s a non-denial denial, and it wasn’t just Manafort:

Two days after the election in November, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy Russian foreign minister, said that “there were contacts” during the campaign between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s team.

“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Mr. Ryabkov said in an interview with the Russian Interfax news agency.

The Trump transition team denied Mr. Ryabkov’s statement. “This is not accurate,” Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, said at the time.

Now, forget that:

The National Security Agency, which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the communications between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance. After that, the FBI asked the NSA to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the phone calls, and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed.

The FBI has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.

All of the men have strongly denied they had any improper contacts with Russian officials.

Fine, but now they don’t deny the contacts. You’ll just have to trust them on the propriety of all those conversations. And your Pinto won’t explode.

This is not effective crisis management, and Kevin Drum adds this:

If Trump thought that firing Michael Flynn was going to stop the recent bloodletting, he thought wrong.

Just to make this clear: At the same time that Russian intelligence was hacking various email accounts in order to sabotage Hillary Clinton, multiple members of the Trump team had repeated phone calls with senior Russian intelligence officials. And during this entire time, Trump himself was endorsing a foreign policy that appeared almost as if it had been dictated to him by Vladimir Putin.

As a number of people have pointed out, the American intelligence community has all but declared war on Trump since his inauguration. I hardly need to spell out why this is dangerous. At the same time, it’s sure becoming a lot clearer why they’re so alarmed by the guy.

Drum adds only one other detail:

FBI Director James Comey, who knew all about this, pushed hard not to make it public during the campaign. Instead he considered it more important to inform Congress that he had discovered additional copies of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.

And then he said that was a false alarm – sorry about that – and Clinton was history a few days later.

This was a mess, but messes can be cleaned up, and the Washington post covers how Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, was sent out to do just that:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that it was “highly likely” that the events leading to Flynn’s departure would be added to a broader probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. … McConnell’s comments followed White House revelations that Trump was aware “for weeks” that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence and others about the content of his late-December talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

“We’ve been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth,” Spicer said at the daily White House press briefing. He emphasized that an internal White House inquiry had concluded that nothing Flynn discussed with the Russian was illegal but that he had “broken trust” with Trump by not telling the truth about the talks.

When asked whether Trump told Flynn to talk to Kislyak about sanctions, Spicer responded: “No, absolutely not.”

Asked why Trump had waited nearly three weeks to act after what Spicer called a “heads-up” from the Justice Department, he said that once the question of legality was settled, “then it became a phase of determining whether or not [Flynn’s] action on this and a whole host of other issues undermined” Trump’s trust. He declined to specify the “other issues.”

That doesn’t clarify much, and there’s this:

In an interview conducted early Monday and published Tuesday by the Daily Caller, Flynn said that he did not specifically discuss sanctions with Kislyak but rather President Barack Obama’s simultaneous expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. He said he told the ambassador that “we’ll review everything” following Trump’s inauguration.

Current and former U.S. officials have said, however, that much of the conversation was about sanctions and that Flynn suggested that Moscow not respond in kind to the expulsions – advice that Russian President Vladimir Putin took in declining to take retaliatory action.

Putin took his advice, or Trump’s advice, if Trump had told Flynn what he wanted Putin to do, and there’s this:

Although Trump has not publicly mentioned his view of the sanctions, Spicer said that the president “has made it very clear he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea,” even as he hopes to cooperate with Putin on terrorism.

That’s new. During the campaign Trump had said that he understood that the people of Crimea really wanted to be part of Russia – as the Russians had been saying – and that the Russians had never invaded eastern Ukraine at all. He finally did concede they had, reluctantly. Now he’s saying they should stop that nonsense, and get out of Crimea too. Perhaps that’s crisis management. He’s been on the side of Russia far too long.

That’s curious. Perhaps he owes them. His sons did brag about all the Russian money that had financed his amazing projects over all the years. A look at his tax returns would clear that up, but there he has someone else doing the crisis management:

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) said that he will not order the Treasury Department to provide President Donald Trump’s tax returns to his committee.

“If Congress begins to use its powers to rummage around in the tax returns of the President, what prevents Congress from doing the same to average Americans? Privacy and civil liberties are still important rights in this country and the Ways and Means Committee is not going to start to weaken them.”

That’s taking the high road:

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) called on Brady earlier in February to order the Treasury Department to provide 10 years of Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I believe the powerful Ways and Means Committee has the responsibility to use that power to ensure proper oversight of the executive branch by requesting a review of President Trump’s tax returns,” Pascrell wrote.

Brady said in his statement that he disagrees with “all of” Pascrell’s argument.

“I’ve read his letter and I disagree with all of it,” Brady wrote. “That letter misrepresents the legislative intent of that provision, which in fact creates confidentiality and privacy for Americans in their tax returns.”

So now we’ll never know – effective crisis management at work – and there’s this:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said Tuesday that he didn’t think it would be “useful” to investigate conversations between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and a Russian ambassador that led to Flynn’s resignation.

“I think that might be excessive,” Paul said in an interview with “Kilmeade and Friends” first surfaced by CNN’s KFILE.

Paul said that Republicans will “never even get started” with major policy changes like repealing Obamacare if they are focused on investigating their colleagues.

“I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense,” Paul said.

He said that President Donald Trump has apparently “handled the situation…”

That’s an odd sort of crisis management – Obamacare is the real crisis – change the topic.

Josh Marshall suggests we don’t:

We have before us a question that has stood before us, center stage, for something like a year, brazen and shameless and yet too baffling and incredible to believe: Donald Trump’s bizarre and unexplained relationship with Russia and its strongman Vladimir Putin.

It is almost beyond imagining that a National Security Advisor could be forced to resign amidst a counter-intelligence investigation into his communications and ties to a foreign adversary. The National Security Advisor is unique in the national security apparatus. He or she is the organizer, synthesizer and conduit to the President for information from all the various agencies and departments with a role in national security. This person must be able to know everything. The power and trust accorded this person are immeasurable. It is only really comparable to the President. And yet, we are talking about the President. A staffer or appointee can be dismissed. The President is the ultimate constitutional officer.

And that’s the problem:

All the claims about Trump and Russia rely on suppositions which are unproven and hard evidence we don’t have. But the circumstantial evidence, the unexplained actions, the unheard of spectacle of a foreign power subverting a US election while the beneficiary of the interference aggressively and openly makes the case for the culprit, the refusal to make even the most elementary forms of disclosure which could clarify the President’s financial ties – they are so multifaceted and abundant it is almost impossible to believe they are mere random and chance occurrences with no real set of connections behind them.

Step back for a second and look at this. While certainties are hard to come by, it seems clear that Russia broke into computer networks and selectively released private emails to damage Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump. When President Obama took a series of actions to punish the Russian government for this interference, President-Elect Trump’s top foreign policy advisor made a series of calls to the Russian government’s representative in the United States to ask him to have his government refrain from retaliation and suggested that the punishments could be lifted once the new government was sworn in. Then he lied about the calls both publicly and apparently within the White House. What has gotten lost in this discussion is that these questionable calls were aimed at blunting the punishment meted out for the election interference that helped Donald Trump become President. This is mind-boggling.

And there’s this:

Through the course of the campaign, transition and presidency, three top Trump advisors and staffers have had to resign because of issues tied to Russia – Paul Manafort, Carter Page and now Michael Flynn. Page might arguably be termed a secondary figure. Manafort ran Trump’s campaign and Flynn was his top foreign policy advisor for a year. The one common denominator between all these events, all these men is one person: Donald Trump…

This has all been happening before our eyes, the train of inexplicable actions, the unaccountable ties and monetary connections, the willful, almost inexplicable need to make the case for Vladimir Putin even when the President knows the suspicion he’s under. When I was writing my first post on this topic more than six months ago, I had the uncanny feeling of finding what I was writing impossible to believe as I wrote it. And yet, I would go through the list of unexplained occurrences and actions, clear business and political connections, sycophantic support and more and realize there was too much evidence to ignore. It was fantastical and yet in plain sight.

That’s where we still are. There is a huge amount we don’t know. We don’t know the big answers. But to use the language of the criminal law, there’s probable cause to have a real investigation. Not a rush to judgment, but an investigation.

That would be nice, but it’s more than that:

There is so much smoke that you could choke on it. It’s time to find out what Donald Trump’s relationship is to Russia, his and his associates’ contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, whatever business ties there might be. If you were Vladimir Putin you could not have done more to help the cause of Donald Trump. And if you were Trump, you could not have done more in actions and statements to repay the favor. The only question is whether the trajectory of perfectly interlocked actions was simply chance or tacit.

And meanwhile on CNN:

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) said Tuesday that it would be “the definition of treason” if members of President Donald Trump’s administration are “conspiring with Russia.”

“If members of the administration are essentially conspiring with Russia either through the campaign earlier or now in the administration itself, I mean, look, Wolf, that’s the definition of treason,” Moulton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

“Let me just be precise on this. You’re throwing out a huge word, treason. Explain exactly what your concern is,” Blitzer said.

“The definition of treason is putting the interests of our enemy ahead of our own,” Moulton replied. “It seems like there’s a lot of evidence that there are members of the administration who are more concerned about Russia’s goals than our own.”

There will be more of that. That’s the crisis that Trump must manage, the cyanide in the Tylenol capsule, although Eli Lake is now talking about The Political Assassination of Michael Flynn:

It’s possible that Flynn has more ties to Russia that he had kept from the public and his colleagues. It’s also possible that a group of national security bureaucrats and former Obama officials are selectively leaking highly sensitive law enforcement information to undermine the elected government.

Flynn was a fat target for the national security state. He has cultivated a reputation as a reformer and a fierce critic of the intelligence community leaders he once served with when he was the director the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama. Flynn was working to reform the intelligence-industrial complex, something that threatened the bureaucratic prerogatives of his rivals…

Representative Devin Nunes [the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee] told me Monday night that this will not end well. “First it’s Flynn, next it will be Kellyanne Conway, then it will be Steve Bannon, then it will be Reince Priebus,” he said. Put another way, Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.

The hidden shadow government, the “national security state” that has nothing to do with the people, or democracy, is taking over. It’s a military/intelligence coup. It’s the end of America. Wake up, people!

Two weeks earlier it was Paul Sperry in the New York Post:

When former President Barack Obama said he was “heartened” by anti-Trump protests, he was sending a message of approval to his troops. Troops? Yes, Obama has an army of agitators – numbering more than 30,000 – who will fight his Republican successor at every turn of his historic presidency. And Obama will command them from a bunker less than two miles from the White House.

In what’s shaping up to be a highly unusual post-presidency, Obama isn’t just staying behind in Washington. He’s working behind the scenes to set up what will effectively be a shadow government to not only protect his threatened legacy, but to sabotage the incoming administration and its popular “America First” agenda.

He’s doing it through a network of leftist nonprofits led by Organizing for Action. Normally you’d expect an organization set up to support a politician and his agenda to close up shop after that candidate leaves office, but not Obama’s OFA. Rather, it’s gearing up for battle, with a growing war chest and more than 250 offices across the country…

Far from sulking, OFA activists helped organize anti-Trump marches across US cities, some of which turned into riots. After Trump issued a temporary ban on immigration from seven terror-prone Muslim nations, the demonstrators jammed airports, chanting: “No ban, no wall, sanctuary for all!”

Yes, wake up:

Obama will be overseeing it all from a shadow White House located within two miles of Trump. It features a mansion, which he’s fortifying with construction of a tall brick perimeter, and a nearby taxpayer-funded office with his own chief of staff and press secretary. Michelle Obama will also open an office there, along with the Obama Foundation.

That’s another odd sort of crisis management – forget Trump and Russia – Obama is plotting a coup.

Of course the best form of crisis management is to be bold, even if you can’t be humble. Trump could come out and just say that yes, he did make a deal with Putin and the Russian intelligence services. They get him elected and he gives them Ukraine and Crimea and perhaps the Baltic States. He could say he makes deals, and he always wins, and he is president. He won big. We should be in awe of him. This was a masterpiece.

That could happen. The key to effective crisis management is demonstrating, without question, that you’re the good guy, and everyone loves a winner. Then we all take a lot of Tylenol.

Posted in Trump and Russia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Flynn No More

There are things that no one is supposed to know, and that no one knows. Russia has spies, America has spies, everyone has spies – but no one knows who they are or what they do or have done. There’s only pop culture. James Bond was manly (Sean Connery) and then he was an impeccably dressed witty fop (Roger Moore) and then he was a nasty cynical killer-for-the-good-guys (Daniel Craig) – and in the movies made from the Tom Clancy books, the CIA guys are superbly informed and devastatingly efficient technocrats, and brave too. Harrison Ford took care of the Irish terrorists and then the Columbia drug lords in two successive movies. In the Jason Bourne movies, however, the guys at the CIA and NSA and all the rest are nasty folks who break all the rules, who have decided that they answer to no one, and are out to kill Matt Damon, one of their projects gone wrong, or gone right, depending on your point of view. And then there’s real life. Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent and then ran the place – a ruthless stone-cold nationalist. Donald Trump likes him a lot. That may be the reason.

That may be nonsense. Last month. in the Observer, John Schindler looked into the real stuff going on:

Donald Trump’s aggressive comments about American spies – mocking them and comparing them to Nazis on Twitter, for example – have generated unprecedented enmity in our Intelligence Community. Going to war with the IC is a bad idea for any new administration, particularly given the new commander-in-chief’s rumored links to Vladimir Putin, which are keeping American spies up at night.

It’s not just Washington that’s worried. Throughout the Western spy alliance, intelligence agencies are pondering the previously unthinkable: Is the American president compromised? On several occasions over the decades, the IC had to reduce spy-links, usually only temporarily, to various partners when a new government contained too many cabinet ministers with Moscow linkages. Now the shoe is on the other foot and it’s the American government that seems to have a Kremlin problem.

Just how alarming things are was revealed by a recent report in The Times of London that British intelligence has asked the IC for reassurances that the new administration – which has several officials with Kremlin ties that aren’t exactly hidden – won’t compromise British spies operating clandestinely inside Russia. When America’s oldest and most intimate intelligence partner is worried that the White House can’t be trusted with secrets, we’re in uncharted and dangerous waters.

It seems that our intelligence folks have mentioned to the Brits and the Israelis, and others, and they might want to be careful about what they have found out that they might want to share with us – it might end up in Moscow in an hour. Our folks can guarantee nothing at the moment. The situation is fluid.

Schindler is at it again now, with The Spy Revolt Against Trump Begins:

A new report by CNN indicates that important parts of the infamous spy dossier that professed to shed light on President Trump’s shady Moscow ties have been corroborated by communications intercepts… SIGINT [signals intelligence, the stuff we get electronically] confirms that some of the non-salacious parts of what Steele reported, in particular how senior Russian officials conspired to assist Trump in last year’s election, are substantially based in fact.

Christopher Steele is the former MI6 agent (a real James Bond from the real MI6) that they’ve worked with before and trust, so this is not surprising:

Our spies have had enough of these shady Russian connections and they are starting to push back… In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move.

They have their reasons:

What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.

Kevin Drum follows such things and adds this:

“Inside” reporting about the intelligence community is notoriously unreliable, so take this with a grain of salt. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But just the fact that stuff like this is getting a respectful public hearing is damning all by itself. For any other recent president, a report like this would be dismissed as nonsense without a second thought. But for Trump, it seems plausible enough to take seriously.

Well, if our guys are a bit put out that the Russians know so much about what is said in the Situation Room, immediately, there might be a reason, and that might explain this:

Michael Flynn, the national security adviser to President Trump, resigned late Monday over revelations about his potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and his misleading statements about the matter to senior Trump administration officials.

Flynn stepped down amid mounting pressure on the Trump administration to account for its false statements about Flynn’s conduct after The Washington Post reported Monday that the Justice Department had warned the White House last month that Flynn had so mischaracterized his communications with the Russian diplomat that he might be vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.

In a letter to Trump, Flynn said he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president.”

That’s not the whole story, because the Washington Post had the scoop:

The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.

The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the Russian diplomat, had told Vice ­President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information.

The Trump administration had known about this for a month, but the Post’s scoop forced their hand on what was essentially hidden old news:

In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House. They feared that “Flynn had put himself in a compromising position” and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled, according to one of the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn’s resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that “we’ve been working on this for weeks.”

But there’s a kicker:

The current and former officials said that although they believed that Pence was misled about the contents of Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador, they couldn’t rule out that Flynn was acting with the knowledge of others in the transition.

So, did Trump tell Flynn to assure the Russians things would be just fine for them in the new Trump years? No one knows, but this has been going on for quite some time:

Flynn told The Post earlier this month that he first met [Russian Ambassador Sergey] Kislyak in 2013, when Flynn was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and made a trip to Moscow.

U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 presidential campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, officials said. Communications between the two continued after Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, according to officials with access to intelligence reports on the matter.

Kislyak, in a brief interview with The Post, confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, but he declined to say what was discussed.

All the leaks from the DNC that ruined things for Hillary Clinton, that all of our intelligence agencies say they can prove were the work of the Russians, might make sense now, as the work of Flynn under the direction of Trump. That’s possible but only implied, as this developed slowly:

For Yates and other officials, concerns about the communications peaked in the days after the Obama administration on Dec. 29 announced measures to punish Russia for what it said was the Kremlin’s interference in the election in an attempt to help Trump.

After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.

Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.

From that call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak.

Something was fishy. They didn’t know what, but something had to be done:

The internal debate over how to handle the intelligence on Flynn and Kislyak came to a head on Jan. 19, Obama’s last full day in office.

Yates, Clapper and Brennan argued for briefing the incoming administration so the new president could decide how to deal with the matter. The officials discussed options, including telling Pence, the incoming White House counsel, the incoming chief of staff, or Trump himself.

FBI Director James B. Comey initially opposed notification, citing concerns that it could complicate the agency’s investigation.

Clapper and Brennan left their positions when Trump was sworn in, but Yates stayed on as acting attorney general until Jan. 30, when Trump fired her for refusing to defend his executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries – an action that had been challenged in court.

But firing her, for an unrelated reason, didn’t fix things:

A turning point came after Jan. 23, when [Press Secretary Sean] Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue “again last night.” There was just “one call,” Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation.

Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House. Yates and the senior career national security official spoke to McGahn, the White House counsel, who didn’t respond Monday to a request for comment.

Trump has declined to publicly back his national security adviser after the news broke.

And then he accepted his resignation.

The New York Times has more:

In addition, the Army has been investigating whether Mr. Flynn received money from the Russian government during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015, according to two defense officials. Such a payment might violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without consent from Congress. The defense officials said there was no record that Mr. Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, filed the required paperwork for the trip.

That was some trip:

During his 2015 trip to Moscow, Mr. Flynn was paid to attend the anniversary celebration of Russia Today, a television network controlled by the Kremlin. At the banquet, he sat next to Mr. Putin.

Mr. Flynn had notified the Defense Intelligence Agency, which he once led, that he was taking the trip. He received a security briefing from agency officials before he left, which is customary for former top agency officials when they travel overseas.

Still, some senior agency officials were surprised when footage of the banquet appeared on RT, and believed that Mr. Flynn should have been more forthcoming with the agency about the nature of his trip to Russia.

Flynn leading the standing ovation for Putin was a bit much too, but all will be well:

One person close to the administration who was not authorized to discuss the personnel moves and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that retired Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward is the leading candidate to replace Mr. Flynn, although Mr. Kellogg [that would be retired Lt. Gen. Joseph K. Kellogg Jr. who was under Flynn] and David H. Petraeus are being discussed. It was not clear whether Mr. Petraeus is still expected to appear at the White House this week, as initially discussed by advisers to the president.

The smart money is on Harward, a protégé of “Mad Dog” Mattis, the new defense secretary, who is a stable and quite sane fellow. Harward is also sensible. Petraeus, however, pled guilty to sharing highly classified information with his mistress, who was writing a glowing biography of him. Petraeus is brilliant, and measured, but he’d need a court waiver to handle classified material again. Trump doesn’t need more trouble.

And Trump wasn’t in the dark in all this, as Josh Marshall argues:

President Trump is in a unique position. He doesn’t have to guess or cultivate intelligence sources. The FBI and the CIA work for him. What we learned on Thursday night was that there are transcripts of at least one of these conversations and they directly contradict Flynn’s denials. He did discuss the sanctions. This information has been available to President Trump since he became President on the 21st. He could have gotten it from FBI Director Comey or possibly from CIA Director Pompeo after he was confirmed on the 23rd. I should note I’m not sure whether these transcripts were only with the FBI or also with the CIA. There are rules about which agencies can scrutinize intelligence collected in the US or on US citizens. But I’m not certain just how they apply in this, shall we say, rather unique situation. In any case, this information was available to President Trump.

Why didn’t he get it? Why wasn’t he told?

Now, one might speculate that Flynn told Trump one thing, Trump believed him and Flynn is Trump’s conduit to most national security related information. So perhaps Trump didn’t know who to ask or didn’t think there was any need to ask. This is conceivable. Maybe. But the stream of leaks is people in law enforcement and the intelligence worlds trying to get this information out. I don’t think it would have been hard for President Trump to find this stuff out.

But there’s a much simpler explanation to all of this – one that does a much better job making sense of the Transition’s and then the White House’s weird indifference to all these leaks: President Trump knew that Flynn was in touch with the Russian Ambassador, not just about the calls on December 29th but the ones before the election too. Remember that when President Putin said he would not retaliate for the sanctions, the day after Obama imposed them, Trump went on Twitter and said how he’d always known Putin was smart.

Now that we know that Trump’s top foreign policy advisor was on the phone with the Russian Ambassador the day before suggesting that Russia not overact but wait for Trump to be sworn in, does this read like someone who was involved in sending that message? I would say so.

That’s not a certainty, but connect the dots:

Flynn has been a close advisor to Trump since the spring of 2016. Trump has consistently championed closer relations with Russia through the campaign. The subject of Russia came up repeatedly in the final months of the campaign as it became increasingly clear that Russia was involved in the hacking campaign against the Democrats. Does it seem likely that Flynn kept his communications with the Russian Ambassador secret from Trump this whole time? To me, it seems highly unlikely.

Again, we have no proof of this. But in all the conversations about Flynn’s fate I see very little discussion about whether he did what he did at the President’s behest and with his knowledge. That seems odd since it seems like by far the most likely explanation.

Consider another part of this. We’ve known about these calls for a month. There has been no word from the President about whether he knew about the Flynn/Russia channel. There’s been no word from the President since February 9th when we had the first definitive reports that Flynn discussed sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak on the day President Obama imposed them.

The Flynn drama is interesting. But whether he lied to Vice President Pence is maybe the 20th most consequential part of this story. What did Flynn do? What did he tell Trump? What did Trump do? These are very pressing questions.

Marshall then adds this:

The role of Russia in the 2016 election and the President’s relationship to Russia has been the un-ignorable question hanging over President Trump for months. Flynn’s resignation does not come close to resolving it. It is highly likely that the Flynn/Russia channel was authorized by the President himself. There’s much more to come.

That’s a bit of an understatement. Trump may continue his unrelenting praise of Vladimir Putin – not one bad word ever – but this complicates that. Flynn seems to have been their man in Washington, their mole, unless Trump had been fine with that, until all hell broke loose as this Great Spy Revolt against Trump began. John Schindler was right. Don’t mess with the intelligence community. They’ll win. They always do – and Flynn is gone.

Donald Trump could be next. There’s now a way to force the release of his tax returns – his sons did brag about all the Russian money that had financed his amazing projects over all the years. That might worry him, but the real worry is in Moscow. Putin, that ruthless stone-cold nationalist, lost an asset, as they say in the trade – and this isn’t a James Bond movie.

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Patriot-Provocateurs

Anyone who has taught high school English has had problem students – the smart-ass, the brooding potential psychopath, or the class clown, or the rebel, with or without a cause, but usually without a cause. Anyone who has taught high school English at a prep school – think Dead Poets Society – has had those too, with an extra dimension – a sense of privilege. Those kids think they have a right to be a pain in the ass. The family money gives them that right. There is a ruling class. They’re part of it, although they might not put it that way. They just sense it. They’ll be fine. They can say what they want – and they’ll go through life being a pain in the ass. Who is going to call them out? Those who might call them out don’t really matter. They’re nobody.

Six years of that, a long time ago, was enough. It was time to leave teaching and move to California. There’s very little “old money” out here. There’s very little old anything, actually, but, oddly, there is a sense of privilege. California kids know they’re cool, because they’re in California. Everyone else is stuck in places that don’t matter – with no surfing or skateboards or anything else. Blame the Beach Boys. There’s something in the air. High school kids out here can be a pain in the ass too. They’ll go through life being a pain in the ass.

Some of them end up in government. Santa Monica north of Montana – exclusive and expensive – to Santa Monica High School and then to Duke University and then to this morning on national television – “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will NOT be questioned!”

Yea, the California kid said that. He was probably the kid in US Government who argued that Jefferson really wanted a theocracy, and he still has an odd concept of the separation of powers:

White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller said on Sunday that President Donald Trump’s authority to impose an executive order temporarily barring visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States is “beyond question.”

“The President’s powers here are beyond question,” Miller said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

He said that the federal appeals court that upheld a stay on the executive order “has a long history of being overturned and overreaching” and that the government is “pursuing every single possible action” to counter it.

And it wasn’t just Fox News:

“A district judge in Seattle cannot make immigration law for the United States, cannot give foreign nationals and foreign countries rights they do not have, and cannot prevent the President of the United States from suspending the admission of refugees from Syria,” Miller said Sunday in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“What the judges did, both at the 9th and at the district level, was to take power for themselves that belonged squarely in the hands of the President of the United States,” he said.

Miller said that there is “no such thing as judicial supremacy.”

“We’ve heard a lot of talk about how all the branches of government are equal,” Miller said. “That’s the point. They are equal. There’s no such thing as judicial supremacy.”

Yes there is – Marbury-Madison settled that in 1803 – the role of the judicial branch is to look at the Constitution and tell the legislative branch that a law they passed breaks the rules, when it does, and to tell the executive branch the same sort of thing, when appropriate. The president has to follow the rules too. The rules are right there in the Constitution, as amended. The three branches of government are equal, but they do three different things – one makes laws, one executes laws, and one makes sure everyone’s playing by the rules.

This is simple stuff. It’s covered in high school. It was probably covered at Santa Monica High, but as Lisa Mascaro explains in the Los Angeles Times, things were strange there:

Too-cool-for-school upper-class students at Santa Monica High scoffed when administrators in 2002 reinstated a daily recitation of the pledge of allegiance.

Most students in the liberal enclave slouched in their chairs and chatted over the morning ritual, which was widely viewed as a throwback to an American patriotism that seemed outdated in the multicultural mash-up of L.A.’s Westside.

Not Stephen Miller. Every day, the student body’s best-known and least-liked conservative activist stood at his desk, put his hand over his heart and declared his love of country.

He was a bit of a patriot-provocateur:

As he was finding his voice at Santa Monica High, Miller bemoaned the school’s Spanish-language announcements, the colorful festivals of minority cultures, and the decline, as he saw it, of a more traditional version of American education.

Yet that robust progressive tradition nurtured Miller’s rise, teaching him how to fight for his beliefs, even if it meant he had to stand alone, in his tennis shorts and polo shirts, as he often did.

That’s an odd image, but it served him well:

After graduating, Miller went on to Duke University and found himself on the far right of the GOP. He landed a job on Capitol Hill with then-Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and later with Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama conservative and next likely attorney general who relied on the young conservative to help him defeat immigration reform in 2013. Miller also came into the orbit of Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon and eventually Trump’s campaign, for which Miller became a trusted advisor and often served as a warm-up act at big rallies.

And it all started out here:

It was the picturesque campus blocks from the Pacific Ocean where Miller engaged in his first political battles: in the classroom, where teachers didn’t know what to do with him; at the school newspaper, where he wrote an op-ed, “A Time to Kill,” supporting the Iraq War; at district offices, where he tangled with administrators.

Oscar de la Torre, a former counselor and now school board member who sparred publicly with the young student, recalled the frustrations of working with the teenage Miller on a district committee that was scrutinizing the community fundraising imbalance between wealthier and poorer campuses.

“Early on in life, he was on a crusade against liberalism and liberals,” said De La Torre, who grew up in Santa Monica’s historically Latino and African American Pico neighborhood and graduated a decade before Miller. “He just didn’t buy it. He didn’t believe the oppression existed. This guy is 17 years old, and it’s like listening to someone who’s 70 years old – in the 1930s.”

Trump is seventy years old, and America’s best-known and least-liked (sort of) conservative, and it seems like that late thirties again, but Miller is a special case:

Santa Monica was experiencing growing pains as Miller came of age at the start of the 21st century. The city was transforming from a laid-back coastal community of rundown rent-controlled apartments into an upscale celebrity and tourist mecca. But it still suffered from entrenched working-class poverty and on-again, off-again gang violence.

Samohi [the school’s nickname out here] – the city’s biggest public high school – served as a laboratory for addressing the clash between cultures and rising income inequality.

These were the late 1990s, the years immediately after a mostly white jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King, sparking days of civil unrest; when Latino students staged walkouts to protest Proposition 187, a California ballot measure that would have prohibited children who illegally immigrated from going to public schools or receiving government-paid medical care.

Those were the times, and enter our hero:

Miller grew up in the north-of-Montana neighborhood, the middle child, in a Jewish family of longtime Franklin Roosevelt Democrats. He played tennis and golf. But their status abruptly shifted when his parents’ real estate company faltered and the family moved to a rental on the south side of town.

A subscription to Guns and Ammo magazine introduced him to the writings of National Rifle Assn. leader Wayne LaPierre, sparking Miller’s interest in politics. The conservative ideas were like nothing he had ever heard.

By the time Miller began his freshman year in 1999, minority students were the majority on campus, and the community was engulfed in conversations about race and class. The district was working to improve the educational outcomes for all students, not just the wealthier graduates scooped up by Stanford University and UC Berkeley, in part by emphasizing an inclusiveness that has become a mainstay at schools elsewhere today.

Then 9/11 hit, and as Miller watched Samohi respond to the 2001 terrorist attacks – he says teachers and administrators openly opposed the Iraq war and mocked then-President George W. Bush – he “resolved to challenge the campus indoctrination machine,” he wrote in Frontpage Magazine, a publication from David Horowitz, the 1960s Marxist-turned-conservative author.

And the rest is history:

Miller contacted radio show host Larry Elder, the conservative African American commentator, becoming a regular guest and attacking the liberal bias he says he felt at school. He welcomed Horowitz to speak on campus, sparking resistance, as he tells it, from the administration.

And he began to garner his first national audience as conservative listeners from around the country called or faxed complaints to the school, much to the dismay of administrators.

“He would take the opposing position and almost shock people. It would send reverberations through the room,” said one acquaintance granted anonymity to speak frankly about Miller. “He would sort of chuckle and enjoy that.”

He was made for the Trump administration:

Kesha Ram, a student activist who led “racial harmony” retreats and often sparred with Miller, said his views, not surprisingly, made him an outsider at a school where multiculturalism was valued and a white male-dominated society was challenged.

“Stephen really did grow up in an environment where he could feel what it was like for white males to feel like the minority,” said Ram, the daughter of an immigrant Pakistani-Hindi father and American-born Jewish mother.

“I think he was one of the first examples we all had of someone who really felt threatened and left out by our celebration of multiculturalism and diversity,” said Ram, a former Vermont state representative who campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

And those who are threatened lash out:

Miller also repeated the false claim that Trump underperformed in the general election because of “massive voter fraud.” Miller provided no evidence to support his assertions in his ABC appearance – something [host George] Stephanopoulos pointed out to viewers.

Miller repeated claims Trump made privately to senators this past week that he narrowly lost the general election in New Hampshire because thousands of Massachusetts residents were bused into New Hampshire to vote illegally there.

“I can tell you that this issue of busing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics.”

Those who work in New Hampshire politics were quick to say, no, that’s not so, but never mind:

Miller went on to say that there is “enormous evidence” of people being registered to vote in more than one state, of “dead people voting” and noncitizens being registered to vote.

“George, it is a fact – and you will not deny it – that there are massive numbers of noncitizens in this country who are registered to vote,” Miller said. “That is a scandal. We should stop the presses. And, as a country, we should be aghast about the fact that you have people who have no right to vote in this country registered to vote, canceling out the franchise of lawful citizens of this country.”

At that, Stephanopoulos intoned: “For the record, you have provided zero evidence that the president was the victim of massive voter fraud in New Hampshire. You provided zero evidence that the president’s claim that he would have won the popular vote if 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants hadn’t voted – zero evidence for either one of those claims.”

The fact-checkers had a lot of fun with all this – it’s all total nonsense – but it doesn’t matter. It was Santa Monica High School all over again. Like his new boss, Miller is a patriot-provocateur:

Miller’s combative appearances pleased his boss, who apparently was watching from Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump tweeted: “Congratulations Stephen Miller- on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”

Fine, but the White House isn’t Santa Monica High School, and as Politico reports, in the White House patriot-provocateurs make for lousy staffers:

President Donald Trump, frustrated over his administration’s rocky start, is complaining to friends and allies about some of his most senior aides – leading to questions about whether he is mulling an early staff shakeup.

Trump has told several people that he is particularly displeased with national security adviser Michael Flynn over reports that he had top-secret discussions with Russian officials about and lied about it. The president, who spent part of the weekend dealing with the Flynn controversy, has been alarmed by reports from top aides that they don’t trust Flynn. “He thinks he’s a problem,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking. “I would be worried if I was General Flynn.”

Michael Flynn is a provocateur. He’s on record saying that Islam is NOT a religion – it’s a political ideology, no more, no less – and the CIA folks are all fools, and the Russians are our buddies, and so on and so forth. He’s like Miller. He’ll take the opposing position just to shock people and sort of chuckle and enjoy that, but he’s only one guy:

Trump’s concern goes beyond his embattled national security adviser, according to conversations with more than a dozen people who have spoken to Trump or his top aides. He has mused aloud about press secretary Sean Spicer, asking specific questions to confidants about how they think he’s doing behind the podium.

Others who’ve talked with the president have begun to wonder about the future of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Several Trump campaign aides have begun to draft lists of possible Priebus replacements, with senior White House aides Kellyanne Conway and Rick Dearborn and lobbyist David Urban among those mentioned. Gary Cohn, a Trump economic adviser, has also been the subject of chatter.

Perhaps so, but Miller saved his ass:

For now, Priebus remains in control as chief of staff. He was heavily involved in adviser Stephen Miller’s preparation for appearances on Sunday morning talk shows, which drew praise from the president.

Still, there are other problems:

If there is a single issue where the president feels his aides have let him down, it was the controversial executive order on immigration. The president has complained to at least one person about “how his people didn’t give him good advice” on rolling out the travel ban and that he should have waited to sign it instead of “rushing it like they wanted me to.” Trump has also wondered why he didn’t have a legal team in place to defend it from challenges.

Hey! Everyone was out there being provocative! What did he expect?

He didn’t expect this:

White House aides say it can be hard to know what will make Trump happy, or what will anger him. Some aides chafed at Conway’s decision to plug Ivanka Trump’s merchandise line on television, a move that drew widespread criticism, including from ethics experts who said she was walking a dangerous line. But, far from hurting her internally, Trump liked the appearance, and her standing has increased in his eyes, said several people close to the president.

Yet, as the notoriously image-conscious president endures days of negative headlines, some aides have begun to worry. One person who spoke with the president recently said he seemed to be looking for someone to point his finger at.

“You’re not going to see Trump come out and say I was wrong,” this person said. “If you’re waiting on him to take the blame, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”

Heads will roll. Those kids think they have a right to be a pain in the ass. They don’t. That’s his job.

That also assures chaos:

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who recently met with Trump, said the presidency had been “off to the rockiest start that I can remember.”

“Everything he rolls out is done so badly,” Brinkley said. “It reeks of being short-staffed and not having a true pecking order of production from the White House. They’re just releasing comments, tweets and policies willy-nilly. It’s been a very convulsive and confusing first few weeks, but nevertheless it’s been salad days if you care about Republican policies.”

Maybe so, but even that has its limits. There are leaks from those in distress, and the New York Times covers the latest batch of those:

These are chaotic and anxious days inside the National Security Council, the traditional center of management for a president’s dealings with an uncertain world.

Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.

The patriot-provocateur tweets. They try to turn that into policy, as they also fear they’ll be shown the door if they bitch about it. It might be better to quit:

President Barack Obama replaced his first national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, a four-star former supreme allied commander in Europe, after concluding that the general was a bad fit for the administration. The first years of President George W. Bush’s council were defined by clashes among experienced bureaucratic infighters – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell among them – and by decisions that often took place outside official channels.

But what is happening under the Trump White House is different, officials say, and not just because of Mr. Trump’s Twitter foreign policy. (Two officials said that at one recent meeting, there was talk of feeding suggested Twitter posts to the president so the council’s staff would have greater influence.)

A number of staff members who did not want to work for Mr. Trump have returned to their regular agencies, leaving a larger-than-usual hole in the experienced bureaucracy.

They’re fed up:

Trump appointees are carrying coffee mugs with that Trump campaign slogan into meetings with foreign counterparts, one staff member said.

Nervous staff members recently met late at night at a bar a few blocks from the White House and talked about purging their social media accounts of any suggestion of anti-Trump sentiments.

And add this:

While Mr. Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps.

“The president likes maps,” one official said.

Paper flow, the lifeblood of the bureaucracy, has been erratic. A senior Pentagon official saw a draft executive order on prisoner treatment only through unofficial rumors and news media leaks. He called the White House to find out if it was real and said he had concerns but was not sure if he was authorized to make suggestions.

And then there’s their boss, Michael Flynn:

Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia – which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted – or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.

Michael Flynn is a provocateur. Details are for others – but this isn’t high school – but maybe it is. Those of us who once taught high school remember those years. Some high school kids can be a real a pain in the ass, and they’ll go through life being a pain in the ass, and then they’ll run the country, badly. Some people are born provocateurs. Others grow up. Perhaps we should have elected them, not that it matters now. We didn’t, and now it’s just another day at Santa Monica High School.

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Perhaps a Madman

Hollywood is always looking for that big meaningful film, all evidence to the contrary. It’s a prestige thing – Tom Hanks saves Private Ryan and Schindler has his list – and in 1940 it was The Great Dictator from Charlie Chaplin. It was pretty cool. Chaplin plays both leading roles – the ruthless fascist dictator, pretty much Hitler, and the plucky oppressed little Jewish barber. It was also pretty obvious – Chaplin never was subtle – but it was nominated for five Academy Awards and made a lot of money.

Then it kind of disappeared. We took care of Hitler. That wasn’t going to happen again and Chaplin’s 1917 studio complex where it was filmed – just down the street here on La Brea at Sunset – is now the Jim Henson Company Lot. There’s a big fiberglass Kermit-the-Frog on the roof, dressed as Chaplin’s Little Tramp. There’s a strip club across the street. It’s all Muppets and strippers now. No one remembers that “great dictator” – that unhinged madman who was taking over the world.

We don’t have those anymore. Charles de Gaulle was an eccentric pain in the ass. Silvio Berlusconi was a buffoon. Putin is a nasty piece of work. And here, Nixon was paranoid, Reagan lost it to Alzheimer’s in his final year or two, the second George Bush was a bit dimwitted – but none of them was batshit crazy. No unhinged madman was taking over the world, but maybe our luck is running out.

No one will ever know what Chaplin would make of Donald Trump – Chaplin died in 1977 in glorious neutral Switzerland – but this could be a scene if he remade his most successful movie:

On Thursday, during a meeting with 10 senators that was billed as a listening session about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the president went off on a familiar tangent, suggesting again that he was a victim of widespread voter fraud, despite the fact that he won the presidential election.

This is three months after he won that election:

As soon as the door closed and the reporters allowed to observe for a few minutes had been ushered out, Trump began to talk about the election, participants said, triggered by the presence of former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost her reelection bid in November and is now working for Trump as a Capitol Hill liaison, or “Sherpa,” on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

The president claimed that he and Ayotte both would have been victorious in the Granite State if not for the “thousands” of people who were “brought in on buses” from neighboring Massachusetts to “illegally” vote in New Hampshire.

According to one participant who described the meeting, “an uncomfortable silence” momentarily overtook the room.

The screenplay practically writes itself, and then there was this:

During the meeting, Trump also reacted to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren being silenced on the Senate floor while trying to read a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King and in objection to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions before he was confirmed as attorney general. According to participants in Thursday’s meeting, Trump referred to Warren several times as “Pocahontas,” the moniker he gave her during his campaign, and told the Democrats he was glad Warren is becoming the face of “your party.”

Thursday’s meeting was an attempt to foster bipartisan support for Gorsuch.

Something was amiss, and two weeks earlier it was New York Times’ Glenn Thrush reporting the same thing – Trump saying he secretly came in first in November, after the votes from undocumented immigrants are tossed out. Democrats at this meeting balked, but Trump had his proof – a second-hand story he heard from Bernhard Langer, a professional golfer that Trump said was a good friend:

The witnesses described the story this way: Mr. Langer, a 59-year-old native of Bavaria, Germany – a winner of the Masters twice and of more than 100 events on major professional golf tours around the world – was standing in line at a polling place near his home in Florida on Election Day, the president explained, when an official informed Mr. Langer he would not be able to vote.

Ahead of and behind Mr. Langer were voters who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote, Mr. Trump said, according to the staff members – but they were nonetheless permitted to cast provisional ballots. The president threw out the names of Latin American countries that the voters might have come from.

That too “was greeted with silence” – something was amiss – and Steve Benen puts two and two together:

Trump isn’t great at picking up on social cues, so let’s make this plain: when Trump shares these delusional conspiracy theories, adopted because they make him feel better about the fact that he came in second, it makes those around him uncomfortable and worried about the president’s stability.

He doesn’t understand the silence, so he keeps raising ridiculous assertions, which he appears to sincerely believe, despite the growing gap between his ideas and our reality.

It’s an uncomfortable subject, but the need for an awkward national conversation is growing more apparent.

Something is amiss, and Josh Dawsey at Politico, taking advantage of all the leaks from the White House from panicked staffers, adds detail to the script Chaplin would have written:

Being president is harder than Donald Trump thought, according to aides and allies who say that he’s growing increasingly frustrated with the challenges of running the massive federal bureaucracy.

In interviews, nearly two dozen people who’ve spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he’s faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks.

The administration’s rocky opening days have been a setback for a president who, as a billionaire businessman, sold himself to voters as being uniquely qualified to fix what ailed the nation. Yet it has become apparent, say those close to the president, most of whom requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of the White House, that the transition from overseeing a family business to running the country has been tough on him.

It’s the Chaplin madness-at-the-top thing:

Trump often asks simple questions about policies, proposals and personnel. And, when discussions get bogged down in details, the president has been known to quickly change the subject – to “seem in control at all times,” one senior government official said – or direct questions about details to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay – or even stop – him from filling positions and implementing policies.

After Trump grew infuriated by disclosures of his confrontational phone calls with foreign leaders, an investigation was launched into the source of the leaks, according to one White House aide. National Security Council staffers have been instructed to cooperate with inquiries, including requests to inspect their electronic communications, said two sources familiar with the situation. It’s not clear whether the investigation is a formal proceeding, how far along it is or who is conducting it.

The administration is considering limiting the universe of aides with access to the calls or their transcripts, said one administration official, adding that the leaks – and Trump’s anger over them – had created a climate where people are “very careful who they talk to.”

It’s Nixon’s paranoia, early, in the first three weeks of his presidency, not at the bitter end:

The president and his allies believe career National Security Council staff assigned from other agencies are out to get them. In turn, some NSC staff believes Trump does not possess the capacity for detail and nuance required to handle the sensitive issues discussed on the calls, and that he has politicized their agency by appointing chief strategist Bannon to the council.

Last week, Trump told an associate he had become weary of in-fighting among – and leaks from – his White House staff “because it reflects on me,” and that he intended to sit down staffers to tell them “to cut this shit out.”

Trump likes that word:

He also became aggravated after learning about complications surrounding his appointment of one of his top fundraisers, Anthony Scaramucci, to a plum White House job, which Trump blamed on internal jockeying between aides, according to one person with knowledge of the situation.

Trump “was furious,” this person said. “He doesn’t like this shit.”

This is an angry and confused man lashing out – perhaps a madman. And add this scene to the hypothetical screenplay in development:

For all his frustrations, Trump has reveled in the trappings of the presidency. He has taken a liking to the Oval Office, where he spends much of his time working. Following a recent gathering of business leaders, he brought the group into the storied room and showed them around.

But he has also sought refuge from the pressures of the presidency, frequently calling up old friends and sounding them out about golf.

He’s seems to be a lonely man, but it’s the lonely men who are dangerous:

Most of those interviewed for this story requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of a White House where they say the tension has been intensified by the president’s propensity for knee-jerk micromanaging when faced with disappointment, and jockeying among aides to avoid blame or claim credit when possible.

The interviews paint a picture of a powder-keg of a workplace where job duties are unclear, morale among some is low, factionalism is rampant and exhaustion is running high. Two visitors to the White House last week said they were struck by how tired the staff looks.

Of course they’re tired, but the man at the top is lonely and frustrated and lashing out. Cut him some slack, or like Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog, show him no mercy:

The poor dear – he was supposed to make America great again single-handedly, and lesser mortals were just supposed to yield to him. He was supposed to face no congressional or popular resistance when he nominated the most radical cabinet in modern history; affected parties, the courts, and the public were just supposed to suck it up and give in when he issued extreme, hastily drawn-up executive orders. He’s the alpha male! Why isn’t everyone just acknowledging his obvious dominance?

Yes, he may be a madman:

Trump was raised to believe that life is war and the way to win is to be a lone wolf and the meanest SOB on the planet – and then, perhaps more important for the present circumstances, he was politicized by Fox News, a channel run for years by Roger Ailes, who also believes that life is war and America needs a strongman. The new Ailes in Trump’s life, Steve Bannon, also believes in strongmen and perpetual war.

This is the worldview of modern conservatism: cooperation is evil, and collective action even by allies isn’t as good as heroic individualism. And when heroes act, it’s all supposed to work the way it does in the movies: Their bullets always hit their targets, their enemies are always permanently vanquished, and only good things result from their actions.

Trump was supposed to just roll right over the rest of us. His fan base believed that. He believed that. Strongmen always win, you see, and conservatives who talk tough are always strongmen.

It’s not working out like a movie, or a Fox tribute to Ronald Reagan. No wonder Trump is confused.

Actually it is working out like a movie, that 1940 Chaplin movie with that unhinged madman taking over the world.

Andrew Sullivan calls this The Madness of King Donald:

I want to start with Trump’s lies. It’s now a commonplace that Trump and his underlings tell whoppers. Fact-checkers have never had it so good. But all politicians lie. Bill Clinton could barely go a day without some shading or parsing of the truth. Richard Nixon was famously tricky. But all the traditional political fibbers nonetheless paid some deference to the truth – even as they were dodging it. They acknowledged a shared reality and bowed to it. They acknowledged the need for a common set of facts in order for a liberal democracy to function at all. Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality – and their propagation and repetition is about enforcing his power rather than wriggling out of a political conundrum. They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse, the kind of bald-faced lies that authoritarians issue as a way to test loyalty and force their subjects into submission. That first press conference when Sean Spicer was sent out to lie and fulminate to the press about the inauguration crowd reminded me of some Soviet apparatchik having his loyalty tested to see if he could repeat in public what he knew to be false. It was comical, but also faintly chilling.

That’s what Charlie Chaplin, like Sullivan, another Brit who ended up in America was getting at – his Great Dictator was also comical, but also faintly chilling, or not so faintly chilling but right out there, which of course leads to the key question:

What are we supposed to do with this? How are we to respond to a president who in the same week declared that the “murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years,” when, of course, despite some recent troubling spikes in cities, it’s nationally near a low not seen since the late 1960s, and half what it was in 1980. What are we supposed to do when a president says that two people were shot dead in Chicago during President Obama’s farewell address – when this is directly contradicted by the Chicago police? None of this, moreover, is ever corrected. No error is ever admitted. Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie – along with an ad hominem attack.

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie.

Who has time for that? Who would listen? America has shrugged at the lies, but not because America accepts the lies. Only about forty-five percent of America accepts those lies as the truth about things. Everyone else is exhausted. There are too many of them, but Sullivan argues that in itself is the real problem:

There is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up – but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly – manically – that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

Sure, but that’s not possible these days, which are dismal days:

I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.

There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.

Where is Charlie Chaplin when you need him? Chaplin’s 1940 movie argued what Sullivan argues here:

With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements – each one shocking and destabilizing – round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.

There’s only one answer to that:

One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days – but he is not omnipresent – and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you – to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves – to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes.

Sullivan seems to think that we are living through an emergency. So did Charlie Chaplin, once. There’s an unhinged madman taking over the world. It happens – but it wasn’t supposed to happen again. And no clever movie will fix this.

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Flimflam and Impatience

Those with self-confidence rule the world. They seem to know what they’re doing, even if they don’t. That’s the trick. Be bold. Be decisive – even if your decisions are disastrous. That can be handled easily. Say that your critics are fools, or at least timid. Things will work out wonderfully, eventually. No one has any vision these days – you do. Geniuses have always been misunderstood. Everyone knows that – and keep it up. Fake it. No one will know. They’ll be in awe, or assume they should be in awe, because everyone else seems to be in awe. And then at some point you can actually do the job.

That’s the theory. That’s what’s in most self-help books, although it’s not put quite that cynically. There the idea is to believe in yourself – to think positively – and that’s a good thing – but knowing your limits is also a good thing. There’s theory and then there’s reality. Faking it is still faking it, and sometimes you get caught:

A federal appeals panel on Thursday unanimously rejected President Trump’s bid to reinstate his ban on travel into the United States from seven largely Muslim nations, a sweeping rebuke of the administration’s claim that the courts have no role as a check on the president.

It seems that being bold has its limits:

The three-judge panel, suggesting that the ban did not advance national security, said the administration had shown “no evidence” that anyone from the seven nations – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – had committed terrorist acts in the United States.

The ruling also rejected Mr. Trump’s claim that courts are powerless to review a president’s national security assessments. Judges have a crucial role to play in a constitutional democracy, the court said.

“It is beyond question,” the decision said, “that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action.”

Perhaps no one has any vision these days, but there is the Constitution:

The decision was handed down by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. It upheld a ruling last Friday by a federal district judge, James L. Robart, who blocked key parts of the travel ban, allowing thousands of foreigners to enter the country.

The appeals court acknowledged that Mr. Trump was owed deference on his immigration and national security policies. But it said he was claiming something more – that “national security concerns are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.”

That’s a bold claim, and one that’s not allowed in our system, but boys will be boys and the bold will always be bold:

Within minutes of the ruling, Mr. Trump angrily vowed to fight it, presumably in an appeal to the Supreme Court.

“SEE YOU IN COURT. THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

The bold always write in ALL CAPS of course, but that really doesn’t help:

At the White House, the president told reporters that the ruling was “a political decision” and predicted that his administration would win an appeal “in my opinion, very easily.” He said he had not yet conferred with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, on the matter.

There are two things here. How is this political? Is Donald Trump saying that the court in question was out to get him, to make him look bad? They made a legal argument. That’s not a legal counterargument. That’s paranoia – and then, secondly, perhaps he really should talk to a lawyer or two – Jeff Sessions would be a start – and review the decision. What is the best way to win this thing now? A strategy would be nice, even if careful strategies are not bold. They’re only useful.

Some might see Trump’s response as a bit pathetic, but the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza sees this:

To Trump, it was an open-and-shut case: He was the president. The president is tasked with keeping the country safe. This ban would keep the country safe.

The appeals court didn’t see it that way, leaving Trump with the very real possibility that even an appeal to the Supreme Court will change nothing. Remember that the Supreme Court is divided between four more-liberal justices and four more-conservative ones. The ninth seat is open as a result of the death of Antonin Scalia and the blockade Republicans put up on then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. Trump court nominee Neil Gorsuch is in the very early stages of the process and wouldn’t be seated – even if he is eventually confirmed – in time to break the tie.

And a tie would mean the ruling of the appeals court would hold – and Trump’s travel ban would be no more.

It seems that there are distressing limits to boldness:

That’s a big deal for a man who promised during the 2016 campaign that he could change everything that people hated about Washington, bringing his business savvy to its bloated bureaucracy. What Trump is learning – or should learn – from this latest court ruling is that the government isn’t like a business in one critical way: There are checks and balances built into the system. The judiciary is not something he can control or cajole. He is, quite literally, not the boss of the federal court system.

That’s something you can’t fake away:

His initial reaction was, in a word, Trumpian. But tweets – even those in all caps – don’t change the separation of power in our system of government, a fact that Trump is being forced to acknowledge with his presidency less than three weeks old.

Trump may be being forced to acknowledge that, maybe. He could also defy the courts and order the ban to continue, and be found in contempt of court, and laugh at that. What is the court going to do, arrest him? On the other hand, he did swear to uphold and defend the Constitution, and that would be an impeachable offense. He would be violating his oath of office, but what is a Republican Congress going to do, impeach him? Not this Congress, not these guys – so he could be bold. All he would have to do is declare the courts and Congress to be totally useless, in an executive order of course. That would be interesting.

That seems unlikely. He may be learning, but Josh Marshall sees a pattern here:

Going into the Trump presidency the President and congressional Republicans promised an ambitious legislative agenda. And fast. At one point Paul Ryan suggested that Obamacare repeal and Medicare phase-out might start on inauguration day. In any case, few needed to be convinced. Republicans had unified control of the federal government and almost a decade of pent-up appetite for dramatic change – Obamacare repeal, corporate tax reform, a major income tax cut, repeal of Dodd-Frank, possibly privatization of major social insurance programs like Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and more. And yet less than a month in, progress on Capitol Hill has slowed dramatically. President Trump meanwhile seems almost entirely focused on a steady stream of executive orders. These two developments are not unrelated. It looks very much like President Trump has found his presidential comfort-zone: rule by decree.

That’s bold, but kind of loopy:

The American system doesn’t work by presidential decrees. Congress and the courts can cleave back these actions. With Congress suppliant, the courts are showing that most clearly with his immigration executive order, to Trump’s great displeasure. But in other cases the executive orders are more like Potemkin decrees, vague though legalistic proclamations which have limited impact or meaning or expressing changes that other administrations would simply do rather than grandly announce through what sometimes amount to proclamatory press releases.

As usual with Trump, the upshot is a mix of authoritarian tendencies on the one hand and flimflam and impatience on the other.

And it’s the flimflam that’s the problem:

Presidential power operates by Presidents mobilizing popular support to push legislation through Congress. This requires both popularity and even for a popular president both patience and an acumen for deal-making. For all his claims to the contrary, Trump not only lacks the first two. He lacks the third as well…

It would be easy enough to whip up a breathless report that the US has somehow already been converted to presidential, authoritarian rule. But that is clearly not the case – the courts are making that clear enough for all Trump’s huffing and puffing and threats to blow their courthouses down. But this is his comfort zone and this looks like the direction of his presidency. Even when legislation is there for the passing, he lacks the focus, interest or skills to get it passed. He is low attention and low energy. Hastily drawn up executive orders, some inconsequential and some unconstitutional, are likely to be the order of the day, only with the Oval Office photo ops with toadies and CEO supplicants thrown in.

In other words, it is not a poor man’s but a lazy man’s authoritarianism. He is by nature a strongman but lacks the focus or energy to get what he wants in a system which, at least for now, does not allow it.

But that could change:

Threats against more than one judge involved in legal challenges to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration have prompted federal and local law enforcement agencies to temporarily increase security protection for some of them, according to law enforcement officials…

The threats come as Trump continues his verbal criticisms of judges – something that has drawn concern from former law enforcement officials and others who fear that public officials should not target a specific judge, and instead base their criticism more broadly on a court’s ruling.

Security experts say that while Trump’s comments were clearly not meant to put the judges’ safety at risk, in general, public officials should avoid comments against a specific judge so as not to spur an unhappy litigant.

Don’t mention their names because they could end up dead, or not:

Leonard Leo, an adviser to Trump on the Supreme Court, says it is a “huge stretch” to equate the criticisms that President Trump has made with a threat to judicial security.

“President Trump is not threatening a judge, and he’s not encouraging any form of lawlessness,” Leo said. “What he is doing is criticizing a judge for what he believes to be a failure to follow the law properly.”

No he isn’t:

On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether Trump regrets his criticism.

“He has no regrets,” Spicer said.

Trump’s criticisms were based first on Judge James L. Robart, who halted the executive order pending appeal. Trump referred to him as a “so-called” judge.

Later he suggested that Robart’s ruling could put the country in peril.

“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”

The bad should be punished, shouldn’t they? Rile up “the people” and someone will take care of those bad people.

Donald Trump is playing with fire here. He is self-confident and bold and decisive, but that’s maybe that’s just another name for flimflam and impatience, and that plays out in other ways:

According to a report Thursday from Reuters, when Russian President Vladimir Putin brought up the 2010 New START treaty on a recent call with Trump, the American president had to ask his aides what the treaty was. He then expressed doubts to Putin about extending the treaty, according to the report, and called it a bad deal.

Say every previous deal is a bad deal. Have supreme self-confidence in your own deal-making genius – you wrote the book on that, a bestseller. That’s also bold and decisive, and then there’s reality:

“The Reuters report suggests that he’s extremely ill-informed about the most serious foreign policy, national security issues a president needs to know,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan organization focused on arms control policy. “His cluelessness is dangerous in the sense that if he doesn’t understand the risks of nuclear weapons and commonsense measures to reduce the risks, he is, and the nation is, vulnerable to missteps.”

According to Reuters, during Trump’s first call with Putin as president on January 28, Trump denounced New START as a bad deal for the United States and had to “ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was.”

Faking it masterfully is cool, but this isn’t cool:

The treaty, negotiated by President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, was ratified by the US Senate by a vote of 71 to 26. Kimball says that’s because it was seen as a key step toward reducing both nations’ deployed nuclear stockpiles and included monitoring of both sides. “So in a time of tension with Russia,” he says, “this provides transparency and predictability, and it means that neither side can vastly increase their nuclear arsenals, which were already far larger than any reasonable measure would suggest they need to be.”

Kimball adds that the opposition to the treaty when it was signed in 2010 seemed to revolve around the perception that the deal allowed Russia to deploy nuclear weapons at a greater rate than the United States and wouldn’t allow the United States to modernize its nuclear arsenal. He points out that a Pentagon review of the US nuclear arsenal found that the country could further reduce its stockpile by up to one-third without affecting US nuclear capability, so the idea that nuclear capability is somehow hampered by New START is not accurate.

Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear arms reduction advocacy organization, says in an email that Trump’s opposition to the deal seems to be political and could ultimately damage US national interests.

“The treaty had the overwhelming support of America’s military, intelligence, and national security leaders,” Cirincione says.

Yeah, well, what do they know? No one has any vision these days, but there is a problem here:

Kimball says the Reuters report suggests that Trump is not prepared to handle the complexities of nuclear policy. “This is the guy who now has a military officer shadowing him everywhere he goes,” he says, “carrying a 45-pound black briefcase that can be used by the president to transmit the launch codes to strategic command in Omaha to launch as many as 900 nuclear warheads in under 10 minutes, and no one has to agree with Mr. Trump about doing that. He has an incredibly awesome, almost sole authority to launch these weapons. He holds the fate of the planet in his hands, or in the briefcase that follows him everywhere, and this report today, it’s incredibly disturbing because it suggests that he is clueless about this important nuclear risk reduction agreement and does not have a clear strategy for further reduce risks with Russia and other countries.”

Flimflam and impatience are more dangerous than curious here, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out a structural problem:

Three weeks into his presidency, Trump has not nominated any second-tier officials – the deputy, under, and assistant secretaries – in a major department. Whatever the merits of his various Cabinet secretaries, they are heading empty shells.

Yes, Secretary of Defense James Mattis flew to Asia to assure his counterparts in South Korea and Japan that America’s commitment to their defense is rock solid (despite some of Trump’s remarks to the contrary). Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced that message with phone calls himself.

But then what? Traditionally, the appropriate underlings – the undersecretary of state for political affairs, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, and various others – would follow up, in phone calls and face-to-face meetings, to discuss specific issues, allay specific concerns, reshape imperfect accords, untangle some misunderstandings. Asian allies in particular require almost daily hand-holding.

But none of this can happen, because there are no officials who can do it. Nor can the Trump administration do much to form new policies, assess new trends, or address new threats. Usually, the National Security Council’s Deputies Committee does the staff work – sometimes the initial analysis – on these sorts of issues. But it can’t be done now… There are acting deputy and undersecretaries, but they’re holdovers from the Obama administration, and so, they can’t pretend – or be trusted – to speak for the new crowd.

And that makes for some odd phone calls:

With nearly every phone call to a foreign head-of-state comes a tantrum, a faux pas, or at very least a storm of confusion that heightens tensions or foments new uncertainties. Usually, before presidents call a head of state, they’re briefed on the major issues concerning that country, the positions held by both sides, perhaps some personal peculiarities. For heads of particularly important countries, they’re given briefing folders to read in advance. Trump reads no such folders and hears no such briefings, except sometimes an informal point or two, delivered not by a State Department official, but by his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who, in some cases, has his own agenda and, in others, has little to say.

Several foreign leaders have shaken their heads in wonder at these phone calls, so hostile or, in any case, bewildering. French President François Hollande told aides that all that Trump seemed to care about was the money that America spends on the rest of the world. Trump famously screamed at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a prior deal for the United States to receive 1,200 refugees – in part because Trump didn’t know about the deal and, on a broader level, had no knowledge of the critical role that Australia plays in Asian security or in the global U.S. intelligence network.

And then there was the Putin call:

Russian President Vladimir Putin asked about extending the Obama-era New START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, Trump scoffed at the treaty as a bad deal that gives Moscow an advantage – in part because he was unfamiliar with the treaty, which in fact requires both sides to cut their nuclear arsenals to equal levels and which, meanwhile, gives the United States unprecedented rights of inspection.

Our guy, who was masterfully faking it, didn’t seem to know that, nor could he have known that:

It’s not clear whether Trump would have wanted a State Department briefing on these subjects, had one of his own people been available to give it. But he had no such people, and there were no briefings.

Kaplan is not impressed:

Trump is right about one thing: The world is a mess. He doesn’t seem to realize the extent to which his words and actions – his hostile messages, mixed messages, and sometimes the absence of a message where there needs to be one – are making it messier. He knows almost nothing about foreign policy. He has no foreign-policy apparatus, only a few Cabinet secretaries and some White House advisers, who have little experience running federal bureaucracies and who disagree on basic premises. In short, he has no foreign policy, but only a string of clichés about “America First” and “winning,” which don’t translate into substantive ideas or prescriptions for action. And he seems blithely unaware that he’s spinning aimlessly.

But he is bold and superbly self-confident. That’s awesome, or was awesome to just enough voters in just the right places last November. Those with self-confidence do rule the world.

Maybe they shouldn’t. That’s just another name for flimflam and impatience. Congress won’t say that now – he’s their guy, for better or worse – but there are still the courts, for now. Someone has to say that.

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The Persistence of Nonsense

Nothing is ever settled. Donald Trump is president but he lost the popular vote by a wide margin. Almost three million votes is a wide margin, and that’s the problem. His defenders say that doesn’t matter. He won the electoral vote handily – so get over it – it’s settled. Then they’d smirk – but even Donald Trump doesn’t think the matter was settled. He said he’d sign an executive order that would begin the investigation that would prove that three to five million illegal votes were cast, all for Hilary Clinton and not a single one for him. Illegal aliens had cast those votes, or someone had, somehow. He’d prove he’d won big. Everyone loved him. He had a mandate.

There was no executive order. Someone must have whispered in Trump’s ear that this was nonsense and was making him look like a fool and this sure looked like pathetic whining. No one likes a whiner. He won. Leave it at that – and then Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan said that Congress would not appropriate any funds for any such investigation. The Republicans had finally won the House and Senate and the White House and were in total control of the government. They could do what they want. They’d do it. Donald Trump would get over this. He’d finally come to his senses. This really didn’t matter. There was work to do, finally.

Trump didn’t come to his senses. He had a workaround – he said he’d name a special commission to look into this, a commission that would prove he had won the popular vote, and this commission would be headed by his vice president, Mike Pence. Pence dutifully said he’d be proud to head that commission, and then it was never mentioned again.

This won’t be settled. Nothing is ever settled, even if it’s resolved, and now that man of the Old South, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, is the new attorney general, confirmed in a most unsatisfactory manner:

A sharply divided Senate confirmed President Trump’s nominee for attorney general Wednesday, capping an ugly partisan fight and revealing how deep the discord has grown between Republicans and Democrats at the dawn of Trump’s presidency.

The day after an unusually tense conflict on the Senate floor, the chamber voted 52 to 47 on Wednesday evening to clear Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), whose record on civil and voting rights as a federal prosecutor and state attorney general has long been criticized. Sessions won confirmation almost exclusively along party lines. Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) was the only Democrat who supported him, and no Republican voted against him. Sessions voted present.

In remarks after his confirmation, Sessions mentioned the “heated debate” surrounding him and said he hoped “the intensity of the last few weeks” would give way to better relations in the Senate.

That was wishful thinking. The New York Times’ Matt Flegenheimer reviews how nothing was really settled:

Silenced on the Senate floor for condemning a peer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, emerged on Wednesday in a coveted role: the avatar of liberal resistance in the age of President Trump.

Late on Tuesday, Senate Republicans voted to halt the remarks of Ms. Warren, already a lodestar of the left, after she criticized a colleague, Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, by reading a letter from Coretta Scott King.

Instantly, the decision – led by Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who invoked a rarely enforced rule prohibiting senators from impugning the motives and conduct of a peer – amplified Ms. Warren’s message and further inflamed the angry Senate debate over Mr. Sessions’ nomination…

For Ms. Warren’s supporters, it was the latest and most visceral example of a woman muzzled by men who seemed unwilling to listen.

Trump got his attorney general, but Mitch McConnell ruined his mandate by telling that woman to sit down and shut up, because she had no right to read that letter from the widow of the greatest civil rights hero in American history. Many women were appalled, and there may not be one black vote for any Republican ever again, but this wasn’t about that:

Critics saw something else: a senator who has rankled members of both parties with her nose for the spotlight lobbing a far-too-early salvo in the next presidential race.

“A lot of that’s about 2020 politics,” Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, grumbled on MSNBC.

Perhaps so, but this unsettled everything:

McConnell’s subsequent explanation for his maneuver seemed destined for a future Warren campaign ad: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” After an unsuccessful effort to draft her for the 2016 presidential race, Ms. Warren is considered a very early front-runner for 2020, should she run.

Mr. McConnell’s coda has already been repurposed as a sort of rallying cry. Across social media, Ms. Warren’s allies and supporters posted with the hashtag #shepersisted, calling to mind some Democrats’ embrace of the term “nasty woman” after Mr. Trump deployed it to describe Hillary Clinton during a debate.

Yes, this helps Warren, but this was bigger than Warren. Expect the t-shirts and coffee mugs and tote bags – “Nevertheless, she persisted” in big bold letters. Expect tattoos. Expect those words on billboards and the sides of buildings. Trump got his attorney general and got a national and perhaps worldwide women’s movement. The cabinet post was settled, but nothing is ever settled, and there was this:

After the vote to bar Ms. Warren from speaking further about Mr. Sessions, other senators, including Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Tom Udall of New Mexico, read Mrs. King’s letter without facing any objection, prompting some activists to raise charges of sexism.

What else could it be? Oh yeah, it could be racism too. In the evening after the vote, hundreds of women surrounded Sessions’ house and read the King letter aloud, in unison. Expect more of that. The letter wasn’t buried. It’s been posted everywhere. Millions have now read it. That’s not what McConnell wanted.

Trump got his attorney general, but this may have been settled the other way, although Greg Sargent isn’t so sure of that:

To be sure, the crackdown on Warren has already backfired in significant ways for Republicans. It is already drawing more attention to Coretta Scott King’s remarks about Sessions than Warren or Democrats could ever dreamed would happen. Warren read the full letter outside the Senate chamber, which was a great gesture. As Warren put it “I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.”

Indeed, McConnell’s suggestion that Warren had impugned Sessions’ motives and conduct – which he buttressed by reading aloud King’s words – implicitly conceded that Coretta Scott King had impugned Sessions’ motives and conduct, and that this must not be given a hearing on the Senate floor. The message all of this sends about Sessions and the GOP on civil rights is awful for Republicans.

But the point is, Republicans don’t care what message this sends.

That’s because this is about something else:

Warren was shut down from speaking by Republicans who employed an arcane Senate rule; Democrats are shut out of power, and Republicans will use any and all procedural means at their disposal to render them as powerless and irrelevant as possible. And Republicans see no reason to fear any political repercussions from whatever message any of it sends.

That’s because the matter of winners and losers really had been settled:

Republicans pocketed a Supreme Court seat that was President Obama’s to fill and will now likely get their choice of justice installed in it. If Democrats filibuster that choice, or filibuster the next justice Trump picks, Republicans will likely nuke the Senate rules and blow past Democratic opposition. Republicans are totally abdicating any meaningful oversight role toward Trump, despite his unprecedented conflicts of interest and possible corruption, and they are unlikely to pursue independent probes into Russian meddling in our election, making it less substantially likely that the public will ever be fully informed about these things. Republicans have clearly signaled they will do everything they can to prevent other institutional watchdogs from exercising any oversight of their own. This will only get worse.

The outpouring of anger that greeted the muzzling of Warren constituted another sign of the grass-roots energy among Democrats that is arising in response to Trump and his GOP, and that could matter a lot going forward. But Democrats are nonetheless likely to lose a lot of fights to come. The confirmation Tuesday of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, after an intense grass-roots-driven campaign from Democrats, is a hint of more defeat and despair ahead.

In short, give it up:

The question is what will happen to the spirit among Democrats amid more demoralizing losses – and once it sinks in that the nonstop awfulness of Trump isn’t going away, which itself could exacerbate the demoralization. Indeed, Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg tells me that Democratic lawmakers confide they are already worrying about this problem, based on what they are seeing back home. “It is clear that Democrats on the Hill are acutely aware of their challenge,” Rosenberg says. “They have very little power to block Trump, yet they are getting a clear message from their partisans back home that they expect results.”

They are in a tight spot, and one thing is settled:

This is not to say that Republicans can’t be defeated in important ways. Trump and Republicans may be backing off their vow to scrap protections for people brought here illegally as children. Republicans are running into massive trouble with their push to repeal and replace Obamacare, and Democrats have effectively drawn attention to Republicans’ bumbling, incompetence and shrugging lack of concern for how repeal would harm millions. It’s not hard to see GOP efforts to roll back financial oversight going down to defeat. The opposition to Trump’s immigration ban has effectively dramatized the cruel realities of Trumpism and may, at a minimum, dissuade Trump from trying more policies like it. And so on.

But Democrats are going to be shut up. They are going to be shut out. They are going to lose. A lot.

That settles things, and Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog adds this:

What we learned in November, if we didn’t already know it, is that civil rights fights don’t inspire a unifying admiration among Americans. As much as 46% of the electorate is tired of hearing about the struggles of non-whites, and votes accordingly. So of course McConnell has no qualms about preventing Elizabeth Warren from reading Coretta Scott King’s words on the Senate floor. Of course he and 48 of his fellow Republicans would vote to uphold that ban. None of their voters will object. None of their voters revere the Kings that much (or at all).

So this fired up the Democratic base, but it didn’t alienate Republican voters. That’s something, but I wish it meant more.

So, some things are settled, but maybe not:

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch told a US senator Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s tweets about the judiciary are “demoralizing” and “disheartening.”

In a meeting with Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Gorsuch, who’s largely been silent since Trump nominated him last week, took exception to Trump calling a federal judge in Seattle a “so-called judge” after blocking the President’s travel ban.

“He said very specifically that they were demoralizing and disheartening and he characterized them very specifically that way,” Blumenthal said of Gorsuch. “I said they were more than disheartening and I said to him that he has an obligation to make his views clear to the American people, so they understand how abhorrent or unacceptable President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary are.”

Ron Bonjean, who is leading communications for Gorsuch during the confirmation process, confirmed Gorsuch called Trump’s tweet about the “so-called judge” “disheartening” and “demoralizing” in his conversation with Blumenthal.

Neil Gorsuch turned on Trump? Maybe he did, but in a second-hand way. This wasn’t direct even if he was confirmed, and there was a second instance:

In the private meeting with Blumenthal, and in one with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Gorsuch seems to be trying to address the issue proactively.

Gorsuch told Schumer in a meeting Tuesday that an attack on his fellow judges is an attack on all, and he said he is incredibly disheartened when people attack his fellow judges, according to a source familiar with the discussion who paraphrased the judge’s comments…

Schumer spokesman Matt House said Gorsuch isn’t going far enough.

“Given the President’s comments, that a very milquetoast response,” House said. “Anyone can be disheartened, but the judge refused to condemn the comments privately or publicly.”

Neil Gorsuch is being careful, but Josh Marshall thinks that’s enough:

I fully expect that we will now see Democrats make almost the entirety of Gorsuch’s confirmation process into a review and critique of President Trump’s behavior in office, treatment of the judiciary, respect for the rule of law, reliance on executive orders and more – with a particular emphasis on the difference between what Gorsuch is willing to say in private and what he is willing to say in public, especially under oath.

Democrats will pin him down, unsettling things even if he is confirmed:

No judge with integrity can look kindly on what we’ve seen from President Trump. So I take his remarks at face value. This afternoon many observers said that this was also good politics for Gorsuch and his nomination. While I agree with that judgment as far as it goes, the logic assumes a President who is in control of his emotions and faculties. Neither of which are the case.

Remember, we know President Trump very well by now. He has just gifted Gorsuch the opportunity which is the ultimate prize in any elite judicial career. The idea that Gorsuch would now pass a negative judgment on Trump and his behavior as President can only strike him as a betrayal. Almost any other President would be able to prioritize his interests over his ego and give Gorsuch the room he needs. Trump will almost certainly not be able to.

I even think it is possible that before this is over Trump will be asking his aides whether it is possible for him to withdraw Gorsuch’s nomination even if he still seems certain to be confirmed.

That may be unlikely, but it’s certainly possible, and stupid:

It would be a wildly self-destructive act. But we know Trump. Ego and affirmation are everything. Betrayal and humiliation can never be allowed to stand.

Do not get me wrong. I do not expect any of this will lead to Gorsuch being rejected by the Senate. But I do expect that Democrats will be able to squeeze him tightly in a vise, one jaw of which is his judicial integrity and respect for the rule of law and the other which is his sponsor’s temper and fragile ego. Think of it as similar the clamp Sean Spicer is in between his public credibility and his boss’s approval, only less pitiful and with higher drama. It is not only Trump’s recent attacks on Judge Robart and attacks on the judiciary in general in recent days. There were also his caustic attacks on Judge Curiel in 2016 as unfit to judge his case because he was born to parents who were immigrants from Mexico.

This will be fun, but the Onion has a possible satiric solution to the Trump problem:

In an effort to respond to the vast and ever-changing dangers faced by the nation’s commander-in-chief, Secret Service administrators announced Wednesday the creation of an Emotional Protection Division to safeguard President Donald Trump’s psyche.

The new unit’s three dozen agents, who have undergone rigorous training to prepare for their challenging role, will be charged with defending the 45th president’s psychological well-being around the clock, investigating foreign and domestic threats to his self-esteem and quickly intercepting any spoken or written criticisms before they can harm his pride.

“After conducting a full review of the operational procedures available to us, it became clear that adding this new division was the only way to meet President Trump’s emotional security needs,” said Secret Service director Joseph Clancy, noting that the president’s detail is specially trained in assessing risks and minimizing any opportunity for him to feel insecure or belittled. “His psyche could be put in grave danger from unfavorable poll numbers or suddenly come under attack from a White House press corps heavily armed with uncomfortable questions.”

“All of our agents stand ready to lay down their lives to ensure nothing can hurt President Trump’s feelings,” he added.

This goes on and on and turns a bit lame – the best satire is in the sudden silences where the reader extrapolates – but this detail is cute:

According to officials, the Secret Service is reportedly conducting careful background checks on White House visitors to look for any red flags, such as A-list celebrities who might choose to decline a photo op with Trump. The department has also instituted measures to screen the president’s mail for messages that do not reinforce his belief in his own superiority, and to sweep any room before he enters to remove high-risk copies of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

He might find out that he really did lose the popular vote, but of course this is just satire, and this isn’t:

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) reportedly plans to file a bill that would require the White House to have an in-house psychiatrist.

“I’m looking at it from the perspective of, if there are questions about the mental health of the president of the United States, what may be the best way to get the president treatment?” Lieu told the Huffington Post.

“We’re now in the 21st century. Mental health is just as important as physical health,” he added.

The Democratic lawmaker reportedly plans to introduce the bill as early as next week.

That bill won’t get out of committee, but this guy is serious:

During his interview with the Huffington Post, the lawmaker said that “it is not normal” for the president to tweet about all of these topics within 24 hours. He also maintained that Trump is divorced from the facts of reality.

“His disconnection from the truth is incredibly disturbing. … When you add on top of that his stifling of dissent, his attacks on the free press, and his attacks on the legitimacy of judiciary, that takes us down the road toward authoritarianism. That’s why I’ve concluded he is a danger to the republic,” Lieu argued.

Perhaps he is, but Kevin Drum suggests that Trump is not really the problem, when you consider three things that have happened in the past month:

After years of promising to repeal Obamacare, Republicans finally have the power to do it. But they’ve suddenly discovered that it’s going to be a lot harder than they thought.

President Trump kept his campaign promise to institute “extreme vetting” of refugees and visitors to the US, but the rollout was bungled so horribly that he’s losing support for it even among Republicans.

Last week Trump approved his first military operation. It was a disaster. The evidence here is a bit murky, but it suggests that the raid was vetted less stringently than usual because of Trump’s desire to cut through red tape and give the military more freedom to fight terrorism.

What was settled wasn’t settled, nor could it be:

These are examples of what Barack Obama was talking about when he told Trump that “reality has a way of asserting itself.” More generally, it’s the result of a Republican Party that has been averse to policy for a very long time. They have principles and beliefs, but they don’t spend much time thinking hard about how to implement those principles in the most efficient possible way.

They believe that Obamacare is a failure. They believe that immigration should be shut down. They believe the military should be unleashed. But these are just bumper stickers. They haven’t spent much time developing serious policy responses on these topics because (a) that would give Democrats something concrete to attack, (b) their base likes bumper stickers, and (c) policy analysis has a habit of highlighting problems with ideological purity and pushing solutions toward the center.

Drum notes that George W. Bush had the same problem with policy and cites John Dilulio in his “Mayberry Machiavellis” letter to Ron Suskind:

In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, nonstop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking – discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

Drum sees Trump as just an extension of that:

This problem is now a couple of decades old and shows no signs of abating. Quite the opposite: Donald Trump makes Bush look like an analytical genius. But even on their own terms, conservative rule is going to end disastrously if both Trump and congressional Republicans don’t spend a little more time on policy analysis and implementation issues. There are only so many disasters that even their own base will put up with.

That would settle matters in the other direction – but nothing is ever settled. And then there’s Elizabeth Warren. Nevertheless, she persisted. That’s a good thing. Nothing should ever be settled.

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This President Thing

Some rollouts don’t go well. In 1958 Ford rolled out their new Edsel – and America laughed. This was “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon” – the odd grill was unfortunate. And it was just another Ford. Two years later it was gone, and in 1970 it was the Chevrolet Vega – a nice little car that immediately fell apart after purchase, or if it didn’t fall apart, soon rusted away. Owners also kept a few cans of oil in the trunk. Most of that would end up on the driveway. Chevrolet killed the Vega a few years later. That had been a mistake. And then there was that New Coke in 1985 – Coca-Cola changed the flavor a bit because they had been losing market-share. It tasted awful. Three months later Coca-Cola Classic hit the market. Oops.

These are cautionary tales. New and bold is sometimes stupid. Know what you’re doing, and why, and do your homework, and do some planning – and, of course, have a good product, not so much a new product, but a good product. Make it bulletproof – and if you’re the president, don’t sign an executive order banning all inbound travel from seven Muslim counties and say it’s not that “Muslim ban” you had been talking about, and tell no one else in government what you’re doing, and drop it on everyone on a Friday night. This was new and bold, and stupid, and a mess. It included all green card holders – legal permanent residents of the United States who had been visiting their folks back home – unless it didn’t, unless it did. That was never clear. It was just “extreme vetting” and not a total ban, unless it was. It only affected 109 inbound travelers, as the white House said. The State Department said they had revoked 100,000 visas. Homeland Security said no, it was more like 60,000 visas or so – but they weren’t sure.

All hell broke loose. Families were torn apart – relatives shoved back on planes and sent back to wherever. America’s reputation, as a welcoming place for those who want to enjoy freedom and make something of their lives, was shattered. The world howled. ISIS and al-Qaeda sneered and gloated. There were massive protests all across America and around the world – and the inevitable legal challenge. Washington and Minnesota found a federal judge who issued an injunction that forced the Trump administration to suspend the whole thing – this was harming their states. Businesses lost key employees. Universities lost key faculty and students. Hospitals and communities lost their doctors. And, as it seemed to target Muslims and favor Christians, this was unconstitutional. It also made us less safe – it proved we hated Muslims or something – but the states had no standing there. That’s Trump’s call.

The Trump administration fought back. They asked the appropriate federal circuit court to issue a stay on the injunction – to let them resume their new and bold effort. This was the president’s call. The states had no standing. A circuit court emergency panel agreed to hear their argument – and twenty other states filed amicus briefs to support the original two states. So did all the tech giants – Microsoft and Google and Amazon and all the rest. This was not a smooth rollout for Trump.

And then it got worse:

A Justice Department lawyer on Tuesday said courts should not second-guess President Trump’s targeted travel ban, drawing skepticism from a three-judge federal appeals panel weighing the limits of executive authority in cases of national security.

But even August E. Flentje, the Justice Department’s lawyer, sensed he was not gaining ground with that line of argument. “I’m not sure I’m convincing the court,” Mr. Flentje said.

That may not matter:

No matter how the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rules – in a decision that is expected within days – an appeal to the United States Supreme Court is likely. That court remains short-handed and could deadlock. A 4-to-4 tie in the Supreme Court would leave the appeals court’s ruling in place.

That’s the danger:

The appeals court judges sometimes seemed taken aback by the assertiveness of the administration’s position, which in places came close to saying the court was without power to make judgments about Mr. Trump’s actions.

“This is a traditional national security judgment that is assigned to the political branches,” Mr. Flentje said.

“Are you arguing, then, that the president’s decision in that regard is unreviewable?” Judge Michelle T. Friedland asked a few minutes later.

Mr. Flentje paused. Then he said yes.

“There are obviously constitutional limitations, but we’re discussing the risk assessment,” he said.

Judge Friedland asked what those limitations were, and Mr. Flentje did not provide a direct answer.

That’s the core of this. Donald Trump is new to this presidency thing. A president’s decisions are reviewable. Nixon learned that the hard way, but there was more:

Judge Friedland, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, did not seem persuaded that immediate suspension of travel from the seven countries was necessary.

“Has the government pointed to any evidence connecting these countries with terrorism?” she asked Mr. Flentje.

He responded that the government had not had an opportunity to present evidence in court given the pace of the litigation. “These proceedings have been moving quite fast, and we’re doing the best we can,” Mr. Flentje said.

With that, Judge Friedland said, the government’s appeal may be premature.

Know what you’re doing, and why, and do your homework – that’s always good advice – but there was that other argument:

Mr. Flentje said the travel ban was well within Mr. Trump’s legal authority. A federal statute specifically gave presidents the power to deny entry to people whose presence would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States,” he said.

He added that the court should not question Mr. Trump’s motives, and should confine itself instead to “the four corners of the document.” He said the executive order did not, on its face, discriminate on the basis of religion.

Mr. Purcell, the lawyer for Washington State, responded that the underlying purpose of the executive order was religious discrimination. As a candidate, Mr. Purcell said, Mr. Trump had “called for a complete ban on the entry of Muslims.”

More recently, Mr. Trump has said he meant to favor Christian refugees. “The court can look behind the motives,” Mr. Purcell said.

Trump kind of hung himself there, so it was time to talk compromise:

As he closed his argument, Mr. Flentje, perhaps sensing that he was unlikely to achieve a complete victory, offered the court a middle ground. He asked, at a minimum, for the court to reinstate a part of the ban against people who have never been in the United States, calling this a “really key point.”

Reading from a brief, he conceded that those who could be allowed entry are “previously admitted aliens who are temporarily abroad now or who wish to travel and return to the United States in the future.”

Judge Clifton said that the administration might be in a better position to narrow its executive order. “Why shouldn’t we look to the executive branch to more clearly define what the order means?” he asked.

Mr. Purcell also said that it was hard to tell precisely what distinctions the government meant to draw. “They’ve changed their mind about five times” since the executive order was issued, he said.

Judge Friedland said that if the executive order violated the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion, the court could block it completely.

Oh shit. This presidency thing is hard, but it was also hard elsewhere:

Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.

Grisly photographs of children apparently killed in the crossfire of a 50-minute firefight during the raid caused outrage in Yemen. A member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was also killed in the operation.

While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” – a characterization it repeated on Tuesday – the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Mr. Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.

Trump says that would be new and bold, but there’s a backstory here:

Military officials got Donald Trump to agree to the botched Yemen raid by suggesting Barack Obama would never have had the courage to do it, it has been reported.

The raid, which had been planned for two months before Mr Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office, killed 30 civilians and one US Navy SEAL but failed to kill its alleged target, al Qaeda leader Qassim al Rimi.

It is currently unclear how al Rimi escaped or if he was even at the site at the time of the raid but he later released a video taunting Mr Trump as a “fool”.

Oh shit. But the odd thing is this:

Mr Obama had reportedly been told about the plan to kill al Rimi, who took over control of the Yemeni affiliate of the terror organisation in 2015, but held off approving it because his advisors had wanted to wait until a moonless night which would not have happened again till after he left office, the New York Times reported.

But Defense Secretary, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, reportedly convinced Mr Trump to go ahead with the raid by suggesting Mr Obama would never have been so bold as to actually go through with it.

Donald Trump is new to this presidency thing. They knew that. They knew which buttons to push, and Martin Longman adds this:

Most of the focus recently has been on Trump’s reorganization of the National Security Council, in which he demoted incoming National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and Joint Chiefs chairman Dunford and elevated white supremacist political operative Steve Bannon. But here we see Dunford manipulating Trump with grade school playground psychology.

That’s not comforting, nor is this:

At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people’s property.

At the meeting, Trump asked the assembled sheriffs if anyone wanted to “make a statement as to how we can bring about law enforcement in a very good civil lovely way, but we have to stop crime, right?”

Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime.

Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”

“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected.

“And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”

“Who’s the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room.

Kevin Drum points out that the target here was probably Konni Burton:

Before the 85th Texas Legislative Session formally opened on Tuesday, state lawmakers had already filed a handful of bills that would curb or strike down the law enforcement practice known as civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize assets from those suspected, not charged or convicted, of involvement in criminal activity.

Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, has her name on the most comprehensive of the lot. Senate Bill 380 was pre-filed on Dec. 20 and would reform asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state of Texas from taking an individual’s property without a criminal conviction, in most cases…

Burton’s bill aims to make sure the possessors of that property, or cash in many cases, are actually criminals and the property related to actual crime before the cops have the right to seize it. Predictably, opposition to such bills comes mainly from law enforcement agencies that seize cash and stand to gain from the sale of seized property.

That’s how police and sheriff departments stay solvent – cash anytime they want it – but perhaps Trump didn’t know that. These guys counted on that, and pushed the right buttons, as Drum explains:

This demonstrates the problem with Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style. My guess is that he has no idea what civil asset forfeiture is and has no real opinion about it. If, say, Trump had been in a meeting with a few senators, and Bob Goodlatte had remarked that “police can seize your money even if you weren’t convicted of a crime,” Trump probably would have reflexively answered, “Can you believe that?” Instead, a sheriff said it was a bad thing related to Mexicans, so Trump automatically agreed with him. That means it’s now official Trump administration policy.

Sad. But then again, Jeff Sessions is a huge fan of civil asset forfeiture and all the corrupt incentives it creates, so he probably would have gotten Trump on board one way or another.

Trump can be used. Damn, this presidency thing is hard, and you have to be so careful:

President Trump met Tuesday morning with a group of sheriffs from the National Sheriffs Association, a group that consists of more than 3,000 sheriffs from around the country. And to this sworn group of law enforcement veterans, with reporters taking notes, he again repeated a falsehood about the murder rate in America.

Trump told the sheriffs, “The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” He blamed the news media for not publicizing this development, then added, “But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.”

His point was that the lying and dishonest press won’t report that, that only he (heroically) sees the truth, but there is a problem:

The country’s murder rate is not the highest it’s been in 47 years. It is almost at its lowest point, actually, according to the FBI, which gathers statistics every year from police departments around the country.

The murder rate is defined as the number of murders and non-negligent homicides per 100,000 residents. Beginning in 1957, when the rate was 4.0 murders per 100,000 residents, the rate rose steadily to a high of 10.2 in 1980. It then steadily dropped, to 7.4 in 1996, to 6.1 in 2006, to 4.4 in 2014. It went up in 2015 to 4.9. But that is less than half the murder rate of 1980. The raw number of homicides in America has actually declined from 19,645 in 1996 to 15,696 in 2015, even while the population has risen from 265 million in 1996 to 321 million in 2015.

The violent crime rate in America also has plummeted over the years.

Oops. Rolling out a new presidency is hard, but the Huffington Post has its sources deep inside the White House and reports this:

President Donald Trump was confused about the dollar: Was it a strong one that’s good for the economy? Or a weak one?

So he made a call – except not to any of the business leaders Trump brought into his administration or even to an old friend from his days in real estate. Instead, he called his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, according to two sources familiar with Flynn’s accounts of the incident.

Flynn has a long record in counterintelligence but not in macroeconomics. And he told Trump he didn’t know, that it wasn’t his area of expertise, that, perhaps, Trump should ask an economist instead.

Trump was not thrilled with that response – but that may have been a function of the time of day. Trump had placed the call at 3 a.m., according to one of Flynn’s retellings – although neither the White House nor Flynn’s office responded to requests for confirmation about that detail.

This may be bullshit. Someone leaked. Someone said that Flynn was joking about this. They might have other motives, or not:

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s volatile behavior has created an environment ripe for leaks from his executive agencies and even within his White House. And while leaks typically involve staffers sabotaging each other to improve their own standing or trying to scuttle policy ideas they find genuinely problematic, Trump’s two-week-old administration has a third category: leaks from White House and agency officials alarmed by the president’s conduct.

“I’ve been in this town for 26 years. I have never seen anything like this,” said Eliot Cohen, a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush and a member of his National Security Council. “I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.”

Maybe he’s just new to the job, but this leads to some odd places:

CNN anchor Jake Tapper and President Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, went toe-to-toe in a 25-minute-long interview on Tuesday that was punctuated by several heated exchanges over the accuracy of statements the president has made and the media’s treatment of Trump.

The tense interview comes after CNN says it declined to have Conway on Tapper’s Sunday show, “State of the Union,” because of concerns over her credibility.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that CNN had retracted its statement, but the network fired back, saying it stood by its concerns about Conway.

Tapper and Conway did not broach that conflict but touched on several other dustups between the media and the Trump administration that have colored the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Tapper repeatedly sought to hold Conway accountable for the Trump administration dismissing press reports it doesn’t like as fake news.

He noted that Conway has had to apologize for claiming that a massacre took place in Bowling Green, Ky., when in fact it was merely the spot where a couple of would-be terrorists were arrested for hatching a scheme.

He put her on the spot:

“It is difficult to hear criticism from the White House, which has such little regard day in, day out, for facts, for truth and who calls us fake news for stories that they don’t like,” Tapper said.

Conway kept her composure and repeatedly sought to offer an “olive branch” to CNN and other media outlets that have been butting heads with Trump and his aides ever since the campaign.

But she also vented frustration with the coverage the White House gets, insisting it is always negative and that the “palace intrigue” stories about the power dynamics within the administration are almost always false.

Or they’re always true. Who knows? But that wasn’t the issue:

Tapper asked Conway directly if she believes CNN is “fake news.”

“I don’t think CNN is fake news,” she responded. “I think there are some reports everywhere, in print, on TV, on radio, in conversation that are not well researched and are sometimes based on falseness and are actually hurtful.”

Tapper also ripped Trump for claiming that the news media has failed to cover international terrorist attacks because it harbors a secret agenda, arguing that CNN has reporters active in terrorist hotspots around the world putting their lives at risk to report on those incidents.

“He was saying the media does not cover these stories because we don’t want to cover them because we have some sort of agenda,” Tapper said. “That’s what he was suggesting and it’s offensive given the fact that CNN and other media organizations have reporters in danger right now in war zones covering [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]. And I just don’t understand how the president can make an attack like that.”

Conway acknowledged CNN’s coverage of several high-profile terror attacks but argued that the media remains obsessed with covering Trump as if the campaign is still going on and that it could do a better job of framing the threat of radical Islam.

In short, stop talking about Trump. Talk about terrorism. We’re all gonna die!

CNN might not agree to do that, and some Trump folks aren’t as (relatively) nice as Conway, like this guy:

Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, said Monday that the administration will continue using the term “fake news” until the media understands that their “monumental desire” to attack the President is wrong.

“There is a monumental desire on behalf of the majority of the media, not just the pollsters, the majority of the media to attack a duly elected President in the second week of his term,” Gorka, a former Breitbart editor who also holds a PhD in political science, told syndicated conservative radio host Michael Medved.

“That’s how unhealthy the situation is and until the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, ‘fake news.’ I’m sorry, Michael. That’s the reality,” he added.

In short, stop talking about Trump, or pay the price. “Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.” It’s the same sort of thing, and it scares Paul Waldman:

The latest bit of ridiculousness from the Trump administration followed a pattern that is already familiar: the President says something not just false but ludicrously false; his aides scramble to convince reporters that what he said was actually true and fail miserably, only making themselves look foolish in the attempt; what follows is a wave of withering fact-checks and mockery; and the whole thing serves to reinforce Trump’s opponents’ view that he’s a liar and his supporters’ view that the media are out to get him and can’t be trusted.

But if we take a step back, there’s a different way to understand what’s going on. Donald Trump and his allies want Americans to exist in a state of perpetual fear. That will help maintain his support (such as it is) and give him the ability to justify not only the kind of white nationalist policies he has already promised, but even more draconian moves and expansions of his power that he will surely attempt once there’s a terrorist attack he can exploit.

That may be giving Trump too much credit for actual planning, but there’s a pattern here:

Trump’s presidency, like his campaign, is built on a set of powerful negative emotions: fear, hate, disgust, contempt, resentment. When Americans think of the world outside our borders, he wants us to think of two things: foreigners that are ripping us off, and foreigners that are trying to kill us.

That’s what’s scary:

What is all this leading to? We need to be seriously concerned about a Reichstag Fire scenario, in which some dramatic event like a terrorist attack occurs, and the administration moves swiftly to exploit it for its own ends. We’ve been through that before and not that long ago. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress rushed to pass the USA PATRIOT Act, giving the government sweeping new powers to monitor, detain, and spy on Americans. In the atmosphere of fear and anger, it was passed 357-66 in the House and 98-1 in the Senate.

That happened under the Bush administration, which in retrospect looks moderate and thoughtful compared to this one. There will be some kind of terrorist attack eventually, simply because they’re a regular occurrence. Maybe one person will be killed, or five, or 50. When it happens, Trump will say, “See? You should be afraid, just like I told you.”

That’s essentially the argument his attorney was making to that emergency panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit – he’s president, and he’s right, and he cannot be questioned. They were telling him, and Donald Trump, that’s not how things work. This presidency thing is hard. Know what you’re doing, and why, and do your homework, and do some planning – and, of course, have a good product.

Is that so hard? New Coke tasted awful. This tastes worse.

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