Saturday, February 18, 2017

Donald Trump Is a Danger to Our Country

So much from Donald Trump's February 16, 2017, press conference is worthy of commentary that one scarcely knows where to begin. This post will focus on the two things that struck me most -- Mr. Trump's repeated turning the truth on its head, and his almost inexplicable position on matters related to Russia.

Donald Trump and the Anti-Truth

Mr. Trump's first few weeks in office have been, to use one of the phrases he frequently applies to others, "a total disaster." He has attempted to govern by fiat through a series of ill-considered executive actions. He has questioned the legitimacy of our judiciary and our press when they challenge or disagree with him. He has asserted ballot box fraud based on nothing more than his egocentric belief that he could not possibly have lost the popular vote in a fair election. He has needlessly provoked our allies, done about-faces on diplomatic positions long espoused by presidents of both parties, and called into question the usefulness of the international bodies through which we maintain alliances and promote international stability. He has dealt with a national security matter in public at one of his resorts. He has chastised a company for not doing business with his daughter. His national security advisor was forced to resign when news broke of his premature policy talks with a Russian official.

In response to the chaos he has wrought, Mr. Trump offered us even more chaos by calling a press conference in which he painted a picture of the world that is exactly the opposite of what I suspect most of us perceive. Some of his basic points are set forth below, along with parenthetical reality checks.

  • He had the largest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan. (Both Obama victories, both Clinton victories, and George H.W. Bush's victory were larger than Mr. Trump's. When informed that his claim was false, Mr. Trump responded by saying that he was "given that information" and that he had "seen it around.")
  • He inherited a mess from Mr. Obama. (Although the country he inherited was by no means perfect, by many measures, including those related to economic stability, illegal immigration, and crime, it was doing quite well -- certainly much better than when Mr. Obama inherited it.)
  • He is fulfilling his campaign promises and getting things done. (He is signing executive orders and saying what he plans to do, but as discussed in previous posts he has not really made many meaningful changes because that requires working with Congress, which he has yet to do.) 
  • His administration is a fine-tuned and well-functioning machine. (See the introductory paragraph to this section.) 
  • The rollout of the travel and immigration ban was smooth but the court's reaction to it was wrong. (The immediate aftermath of this ban included nationwide protests, confusion at airports worldwide, swift court challenges, and a hasty White House clarification regarding its scope.)
  • The media is categorically dishonest, full of hatred for him, and promoting "fake news." (The media consists of human beings who sometimes make mistakes, but in general they are doing their job by printing assertions for which they have solid sources and challenging politicians, not limited to Mr. Trump, on their words and deeds.)
  • The leaks about Michael Flynn's contact with a Russian official were real but the news about that incident is fake. (This flunks the basic logic test. If classified information was leaked and the leak was real, then reports of the leak cannot simultaneously be fake news. Especially when Mr. Trump claims to have fired Mr. Flynn not for what he did but rather for telling the Vice President that the very information contained in the leak was untrue.)
  • He has no relationships with Russia and the media's focus on that issue is a ruse. (There are very real questions about his relationship to Russia, which he could answer at least in part by releasing his tax returns and providing other concrete information about his businesses and political dealings. Instead he asks us to take his word for it and changes the subject.)
My last post was devoted to how Mr. Trump's attempt to control the narrative is a serious threat to democracy, and his performance on Thursday was a clear case in point. It should be clear that Mr. Trump is creating fake news, not combating it. It also should be clear that Mr. Trump is making a mess of the imperfect but relatively stable situation he inherited from Mr. Obama, not untangling a mess he inherited. The real danger here is that the more Mr. Trump asserts his falsehoods about the state of the world to be true, and the more he makes the press expend energy to show they are not "fake news," the more people will distrust the press and instead believe his untrue claims. George Orwell's "1984," here we come.

What is Going on Between Donald Trump and Russia?

Mr. Trump's attitude toward Russia has long raised eyebrows. He has consistently praised Vladimir Putin. He invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's email, which they took him up on. He pilloried the US intelligence agencies for concluding that Russia sought to sway the election in his favor. Although he since has reluctantly said he believes the Russians were involved, he apparently does not feel the need to either publicly condemn their actions or investigate this very serious matter.

The statements he made with respect to Russian-related matters during his press conference, however, elevated concerns about his relationship to that country to a whole new level. In addition to what we already knew about Russia's role in the election, the intelligence agencies now have evidence that members of Mr. Trump's campaign staff had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. Although the nature and extent of those contacts is not yet clear, the mere fact of them is downright chilling. Mr. Trump on the one hand indicated that he believed the people reportedly involved in such contacts when they denied involvement, yet on the other hand he refused to answer definitively the press's questions about whether such contacts occurred. Instead, he tried to distract us by claiming concerns about Russian contacts were a ruse. They're not a ruse. The extent of his campaign staff's interaction with Russian intelligence, and what Mr. Trump himself knew and did on that score, are very serious questions to which the American people deserve a clear and fully-documented answer.

And that's not the only serious question regarding Mr. Trump and Russia. He claims that the real problem with Michael Flynn wasn't the substance of what Mr. Flynn did, although the conversations Mr. Flynn had arguably were illegal, but rather the associated leaks through which the rest of us learned what Mr. Flynn had done, that he lied about it to the Vice President, and that Mr. Trump knew all this for weeks before it became public. Indeed, Mr. Trump did not see fit to take action against Mr. Flynn until after the leak. What this essentially indicates is that Mr. Trump thought everything was OK until he and Mr. Flynn were publicly exposed, and now instead of taking responsibility and seeking greater clarity he is shifting blame to the people who exposed them. Even if the leaks themselves were inappropriate, this attitude toward the underlying information they contained is appalling.

In addition, Mr. Trump did not have a coherent answer about how he might respond to Russia's recent deployment of a cruise missile in violation of an international arms control treaty or the presence of a Russian spy ship 30 miles off the East Coast. Understandably he doesn't want to telegraph the details of specific actions, but again, the American people deserve to know the general stance our country plans to take when a geopolitical foe challenges us like this. Is Mr. Trump refusing to tell us his general approach because he doesn't have one, or because he doesn't want us to know what it is? Either of those answers is unacceptable.

To all appearances, Mr. Trump's stance toward Russia is at best bizarre, and the overarching question the American people need answered is "why?" Mr. Trump tells us to trust him that there's nothing amiss, but he refuses to provide any hard evidence, most notably his tax returns, that would support his assertion and ease our minds. Until either Mr. Trump provides a coherent and evidence-backed explanation of the tack he is taking or the intelligence community and Congress investigate and get to the bottom of the Russia-Trump nexus, the rest of us are left to speculate about the reasons for his stance on Russia. Three possibilities occur to me.

(1) It's once again all about Mr. Trump's ego, which Mr. Putin has flattered, in which case we could expect Mr. Trump to remain enamored of Russia as long as Mr. Putin keeps "being nice" to him, especially if our press and intelligence agencies continue to uncover unflattering truths.

(2) Russia knows something about Mr. Trump that he would rather not have the rest of the world know, perhaps related to Russia's role in the election or to the content of the dossier compiled by a former MI6 agent. In other words, political blackmail.

(3) Most ominous would be if Mr. Trump were actively colluding with the Russians. One fervently hopes that is not the case, but in light of all the oddities in his approach to Russia it is a possibility that cannot yet be ruled out.

We still don't know which of these, if any, explains Mr. Trump's highly unusual attitude toward Russia, but we should all, regardless of party or ideology, be demanding an answer because our national security and integrity are at stake. Until we get an answer, how can we trust our president? And if the answer indeed turns out to be any of the three possibilities identified above, how can we let him remain in office?

Conclusion and Next Steps

In short, Donald J. Trump in a few short weeks is simultaneously threatening a constitutional crisis at home and starting to upend the entire postwar order abroad. He is a serious danger to our country, not only to our national security but also to the very foundations of our democracy. I would go so far as to argue that Donald Trump is a more serious threat to our country right now than China, Russia, or ISIS.  Talk about a sentence I never thought I'd write.

I'm not sure if Mr. Trump has brought us to this point because he is totally inept, an evil genius, mentally ill, or still pursuing strategies that worked in his business dealings and campaign but do not translate well to governing. Although understanding the root cause of Mr. Trump's behavior is important, there are more important questions still as to whether Mr. Trump understands the issues facing our country and the magnitude of what he is doing with respect to them, whether he can learn from his experiences and improve his performance, and whether he can set in place a team that can help him govern responsibility. The answer to those questions so far appears to be "no." This should gravely concern us all, regardless of partisan or ideological bent.

The question now is what we citizens should do. I have three suggestions.

First, consider signing the "We the People" petition at, which requests the release of Mr. Trump's tax returns. You must provide your name and e-mail address and verify the latter, and agree to terms & conditions and a privacy policy. There are other petitions you might find worth signing as well.

Second, call and write letters to members of Congress and urge them to support an independent investigation into Mr. Trump's ties to Russia. I plan to focus my outreach in two ways, by approaching (1) Republicans such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, and, remarkably, Mark Sanford, who already are pushing back at Mr. Trump and (2) Republicans in leadership positions who should be standing up to Mr. Trump but thus far have not, primarily Paul Ryan and Jason Chaffetz.

Finally, check out a group called Indivisible, if you have not already. It was started by former progressive Hill staffers who are deploying grass roots tactics, which the Tea Party used so effectively against Obama, to resist the Trump agenda. It involves a network of small groups that coordinate outreach to their local members of Congress. I recently learned, to my great surprise and delight, that the very red congressional district in which I live has an Indivisible group, which I plan to join.

I remain hopeful that if all of us who are deeply concerned engage actively and articulately, our Congress, which is the institution best poised to rein in Mr. Trump, will no longer be able to ignore what a serious threat he presents to our country.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Donald Trump's Dangerous Control of the Narrative

Although much of what Donald Trump is doing is disturbing, his single-handed attempt to control our entire national narrative warrants special scrutiny because this aspect of his modus operandi permeates everything else he does in ways that make the foundations of our government quake. All presidents attempt to control the narrative to some degree, but three things put Mr. Trump's version of this activity in a qualitatively different and more damaging category -- (1) he is personally silencing those who don't agree with him, (2) he is flagrantly ignoring the the truth, and (3) he is telling a profoundly negative story about our country.

Silencing dissent

Mr. Trump's attempt to silence the dissent has several pernicious aspects.

Delegitimizing the press. Our system of government relies on a free and independent press to bring carefully vetted information to the public and hold political actors accountable. For this reason, the press often is called "the fourth estate," or "the fourth branch," of government. Mr. Trump, however, asserts that the press is "the opposition party" with which he has "a running war," and that journalists are "among the most dishonest human beings on the planet." Whenever journalists demonstrate that Mr. Trump is being dishonest or ask him tough questions, he inevitably responds by saying the press is lying and making up "fake news." Mr. Trump in effect shoots the messenger and refuses to engage meaningfully on substance. This makes it difficult for the press to fight falsehoods with actual facts and hold Mr. Trump accountable, but they continue to try.

One wonders, in light of Trump strategist Steve Bannon's comment that the press should "keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while" (a principle he never practiced while running Breitbart News), whether at some point the Trump administration will try to silence the press altogether. Even if Mr. Trump doesn't go that far, his indiscriminate discrediting of the press and substitution of his own version of reality for independent reporting serve to distract and confuse the electorate. Mr. Trump's treatment of the press therefore undermines a system of government that relies on an informed citizenry.

Muzzling federal agencies. Our tax dollars pay for federal agencies to not only craft regulations but also do the important work of collecting, analyzing, and publishing information about developments in their respective areas of expertise. Mr. Trump so far has muzzled three agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior -- but who knows what others agencies might be next. He also asked for names of individuals who work on climate change at various agencies. The purpose and outcome of this request remain unclear, but at the very least it injects an element of fear and uncertainty among those who work on this topic. Who knows what other topics might be next.

Although it is expected and proper that a president, especially a new one, will exert some level of control over the policy pronouncements of executive branch agencies, a blanket ban that prevents agencies from disseminating factual information is scary. By controlling what the public hears from certain agencies, Mr. Trump is cutting off a vital source of information and expertise. This further complicates the press's fact-checking role and impedes the ability of the citizenry to develop fully informed views on important issues. Denying the people access to the information and analysis for which they are paying, whether directly or by limiting the press's or lawmakers' access, undermines the integrity of a government designed to be by, for, and of the people.

Firing or publicly berating individuals who disagree. Mr. Trump fired the acting Attorney General, it appears he also fired top officials at the State Department, and his press secretary suggested that State Department officials who disagree with Mr. Trump should look for new jobs. Mr. Trump publicly berated the Bush-appointed judge who stayed his immigration ban, and even called his legitimacy as a judge into question.

Mr. Trump appears to view any form of disagreement as a personal betrayal that must be punished, rather than an important element of how a democratic system of government works. If he continues this punitive pattern, it is possible that key officials in the executive branch and the judiciary might become reluctant to challenge Mr. Trump or, if his ire proves severe enough, leave their posts and be replaced with people who will toe the Trump line. Either of these outcomes would further entrench his personal power and weaken the institutional safeguards meant to check it.

Attempting to direct the actions of an independent agency. In a development that has received relatively little attention, Congressman Patrick McHenry, apparently acting in coordination with Mr. Trump, recently sent the Federal Reserve Board a letter that (1) questioned the agency's participation in international work groups designed to promote global financial stability and (2) told the Fed to cease participating in these groups because "continued participation in [them] is predicated on achieving the objectives set by the new Administration."

In addition to mischaracterizing the nature of these groups' work and the Federal Reserve's role in them, Rep. McHenry's letter evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of the authority and mission of the Federal Reserve. By clear and intentional statutory design, the Federal Reserve operates independent of direct political influence or changes in party control of Congress or the White House. I eagerly await Fed Chair Janet Yellen's response to Rep. McHenry, which I trust will make these and other interesting points. 

The bottom line is that Mr. Trump's combination of undermining the free press, controlling the flow of information disseminated by the government, and attempting to control the actions of specific individuals within the government undermines the core principles of our democratic society. (This will be a topic unto itself on another day, but one wonders what the Republicans in Congress would be saying now if Hillary Clinton had won the election and tried any one of the above tactics. . . .)

Utter Disregard for Truth

Another insidious aspect of Mr. Trump's narrative about the state of the world and his plans to change it is his complete disregard for the truth. There are numerous fact checkers devoted to debunking the Trump administration's dishonest assertions, including FactCheck.orgPolitifact, and the Washington Post's real-time tweet fact checker, and numerous individual stories reported by the major papers and other non-partisan news sources. Most important for purposes of this post, the policy changes Mr. Trump advocated during his campaign and now seeks to implement are predicated on false claims about our country, as the next section will amply demonstrate.

Sheer Negativity

The 2016 presidential election campaign revealed that large numbers of hardworking Americans were concerned about issues such as jobs, income disparities, and access to affordable health care. These are all very real concerns that are worthy of serious attention. Instead of identifying root causes and proposing credible solutions, Mr. Trump played to public anxiety and created a fear-based campaign that painted the United States in an overwhelmingly negative light.

The underlying assumption of his slogan -- Make America Great Again -- is that America is no longer great. In explaining his grim assessment, Mr. Trump relied upon the following lines of rhetoric. Each of his rhetorical points repeatedly failed fact-checking exercises, as I will briefly note in the parentheticals below.
  • Illegal immigration is getting worse. (Although border security can be difficult to evaluate, on balance there is a strong argument that Mr. Obama strengthened it, e.g., the number of border patrol agents went up, illegal border crossings went down, and deportations of illegal immigrants were at record highs.)
  • Immigration threatens jobs. (Many more jobs have been lost to automation and shifting priorities, such as a move away from fossil fuels, than to immigrants; plus, the overall unemployment rate is well below the historical norm.)
  • Immigration threatens the safety of American citizens; Mexicans brings rape and drugs and Muslims bring terrorism. (Experts agree that most domestic terror and crime is homegrown.)
  • Our cities, particularly the black communities within them, are marked by carnage, chaos, and rising crime. (The overall crime rate steadily decreased during the Obama years. Although there was a slight uptick in the rate of some violent crimes in 2015, crime rates when Mr. Obama left office still were comparatively low historically.)
  • Our military has become weak and "a disaster." (Although military spending has gone down, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, "At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.") 
  • Other countries and international organizations like NATO and the UN take advantage of us and are unnecessary. (The United States typically provides military support and aid to other countries because doing so is in our own self-interest, and NATO and the UN are bodies through which we foster alliances and promote international stability.)
  • Obamacare is "a disaster." (While the rollout was rocky and health insurance remains too expensive for some, the uninsured rate is the lowest on record and more people have access to decent care.)
  • Our election system is rigged. (State election officials of both parties and others who study the electoral process say ballot box fraud, which is the focus on Mr. Trump's claim, is exceedingly rare. However, the U.S. intelligence community agrees that Russia engaged in other forms of election tampering, which Mr. Trump only recently and reluctantly acknowledged.) 
It may at first seem trivial to focus on the negativity of Mr. Trump's message, but on further reflection this facet of his narrative is critically important. Playing on the public's fears is a conniving yet time-honored tactic to get people to vote for someone who seeks to centralize power. This tactic also rests on the idea that kindness, openness, and peacefulness betray weakness while tough talk and brute force signal strength, when our experience as a country often has shown the opposite to be true. Finally, we humans, both individually and collectively, tend to weave the facts of our lives into narratives we tell to and about ourselves, and tend to act from the mindset cultivated by our chosen narrative. The light in which we choose to cast ourselves and the world around us has great power. When our president repeatedly tells us that we live in a dysfunctional, unsafe, and weak place, have been taken advantage of, and get no respect, how long before the citizenry behaves as if that is true?


The Unknown Commenter on my last post argued that Mr. Trump's muzzling of the agencies was the most troublesome aspect of his conduct thus far. Although so much of what Mr. Trump is doing is troubling that it is difficult to point to any one thing as the worst part, I tend to agree with Unknown Commenter that muzzling federal agencies and other forms of narrative control are at the top of the list. Narrative control relates to every other aspect of what Mr. Trump is doing, and the manner in which he is controlling the narrative is anti-democratic in spades.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep said the following: "OK, this brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That's why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we're gonna need them going forward, and they'll need us to safeguard the truth."

I just took Ms. Streep up on her request to donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists and ask you to consider doing the same. We need a free and independent press now more than ever to hold those who seek to abuse power accountable.

I also think that those in charge of humor and satire are critically important to holding politicians accountable nowadays. Humor is powerful and fun, and can reach audiences that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio (and this tiny blog) can never hope to reach. On that note, I leave you this: Please make sure your bladder is empty before you watch it.

* This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.