Friday, February 17, 2017

Trump at the Four-Week Mark: It's Getting Worse

As a lot of folks have said around the ol' Interwebs lately, it's even crazier and less competent than I expected, even given that I expected it to be completely crazy and incompetent. I'll list a few items from this week below, then talk a bit about where I think this is going.

Monday night National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after it became public knowledge that he had been recorded in conversations with the Russian ambassador about easing sanctions imposed that day by President Obama for Russian hacking. During yesterday's press conference Trump said that Flynn had been right to do that. Just as a reminder, yes, is illegal for private citizens to conduct foreign policy discussions on behalf of the United States.

In response the Republicans in Congress mostly announced their intentions not to investigate anything in regard to Russian influence, penetration, or control of the Trump administration, except maybe to see if they can uncover where the leaks confirming that Flynn violated the law came from.

The Watergate-era phrase "What did the President know, and when did he know it," has become very popular this week.

Also on the Russian front this week Russia launched a cruise missile, had fighter planes buzz a US warship, and positioned a spy ship off our Naval shipyard in Connecticut -- all with no response from the Trump administration.

Reports also surfaced Wednesday that the intelligence community is now withholding information from Trump and his administration in the belief that Trump and/or several members of his administration are compromised, and that sensitive information released to the President of the United States and his top staff will leak to the Russian government.

Yesterday Trump offered the now-open job of National Security Adviser to Rear Admiral Robert Harward. He declined the job, apparently unwilling to take it if he could not install his own team and have control over national security policy. Normally that's the definition of the job of the National Security Advisor. It seems that national security really is being controlled by Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, instead.

As far as I know, nobody has ever turned down the offer to be National Security Adviser, which has until now been considered one of the most important roles in our nation.

Also yesterday, Trump held a truly loopy press conference. I could type all day about it, but let's just pick a few items:

Trump again lied about the size of his electoral victory, calling it "the Biggest Electoral College win since Reagan." (His 304 electoral votes were more than George W. Bush, but less than George H.W. Bush in 1988 or the totals amassed by Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.) When pressed by a reporter about the lie he replied, "Well, I don't know, I was given that information. I was given -- I actually, I've seen that information around."

He chastised a Jewish reporter for asking what his administration intended to do about a series of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and growing anti-Semitism, calling the question "not a fair question" and "very insulting." In asking the question the reporter very clearly stated that he was not accusing the President or his staff of anti-Semitism, he simply wanted to know what the Trump administration planned to do about the growing number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S.

During his opening remarks he said this about protesters opposing the repeal of Obamacare, "they fill up our alleys with people that you wonder how they get there, but they are not the Republican people that our representatives are representing." Yes, the President of the United States stated that Republican Congressional Representatives are in Congress to only represent Republicans.

In fairness to Trump, Congressional Republicans behave as if they only represent pro-Republican donors and lobbyists, so perhaps we'll just classify this statement under Freudian slip.

During the press conference Trump also made several odd statements about nuclear weapons and warfare during replies about Russian influence in his administration that made me truly rue the fact that he's the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger. I'll take solace, however, in this bit, "We're a very powerful nuclear country and so are they. I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we're allowed to say because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it, nuclear holocaust would be like no other."

At least somebody explained to him that a nuclear war would be a bad idea. I am glad he has that bit straight. I like to hope most of us will survive the next three years and eleven months.

Also this week, a Republican Congressman introduced a bill in the House to simply abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. That sounds crazy, but today the GOP Senate confirmed as the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a man whose mission is to gut the EPA on behalf of the fossil fuels industry.

The Trump administration also continues to push for extreme actions against immigrants, both legal and illegal. They intend to issue a new version of their Muslim-based ban on entering the country in hopes that it will pass muster with the courts this time. This morning the Associated Press broke a story on an internal White House draft memo regarding plans to use up to 100,000 members of the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants for deportation. This would be a shocking advance towards imposing a police state in America. Although the White House refused comment despite repeated requests for comment before the story broke, White House Spokesman Sean Spicer immediately denied that it was true.

Since Sean Spicer has already established that he will lie about anything it's anybody's guess how close the memo is to becoming policy.

A PPP poll released last Friday indicated that Americans were split 46% to 46% on whether Trump should be impeached, an increase of 6% over the results in the Gallup poll released the previous week. Trump's approval rating continues to decline since his inauguration, now hovering at or slightly below 40% in most polls, though the Rasmussen poll of voters, which often leans Republican, still has him above 50%.

Perhaps most importantly, all of the polls show a huge partisan divide. Nearly all Democrats disapprove of Trump's performance. An overwhelming majority of Republicans approve. This split matters because the vast majority of Republicans Congressmen live in safe districts drawn by Republicans or represent red- or red-leaning states in the Senate. They will continue to hold themselves accountable only to Republican voters and not to the majority of Americans as long as Trump's approval ratings continue to remain strong among Republicans. Whether that continues the case probably relies on his ability to keep Fox News and the rest of the right-wing mediasphere on board. So far, they're all on board the Trump train.

I took a survey of the late-night talk show monologues last night, to see if I could get a sense of how this is all playing outside of the immediate news media or my various lefty amigos. I'd say the mood varied from bemused wonderment to appalled concern. It could sour quickly. Or it could hold up. Trump is a never-ending source of fodder for comedy monologue writers.

What next?

My guess is that we'll continue along this chaotic path for a while -- weeks? months? -- muddling along with slowly sinking approval ratings for Trump until we have a genuine crisis, something other than the self-imposed political crises that have enveloped Washington for the last month.

What that crisis will be, I have no idea. Natural disaster? Military conflict? Terrorism attack? Iron-clad evidence of Russian collusion?

Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

If the Trump administration handles it well or at least reasonably competently, they will buy themselves a good deal of rope, probably enough to make it to the 2018 midterm elections. If it goes poorly, especially if it seems to have been botched by incompetence -- Bush with Hurricane Katrina, for example -- we may see public opinion shift much more strongly against Trump.

I know my Democratic amigos mostly believe that any crisis will be met with the demonstrated incompetence we've seen to date. But it's also entirely possible that Trump's administration handles a genuine emergency genuinely well, or at least well enough to get some of the news media back on board. These things always have a way of surprising you.

How this all plays out relies a great deal on the GOP Congress. It's already obvious that they don't want to investigate Trump because they're worried about what they will find. They don't want to do anything that will distract from their rush to push through a long list of law and policy changes. If Trump's approval ratings are high enough to carry them through the mid-term elections with continued control of Congress, they'll probably stay hitched to him. If not, they'll jettison him. Pence would be just as willing to sign their bills, but dumping Trump would cause them enormous difficulties with the Republican base. A split in the party is the only thing truly likely to endanger their control of Congress, given their gerrymandered majority and an unfavorable 2018 map for the Democrats in the Senate.

The problem they face is that the longer Trump stays in office the more strongly they will be co-branded with him. If they're forced to try to push him out of office in 2018, he'll probably take them down with him.

My best guess is that we'll have is a race to push as much GOP legislation through Congress as possible. That race will be run against the ticking clock of the 2018 elections and the potential for a complete Trump implosion. From the GOP Congressional perspective their current situation may look like they're trying to push all their hopes and dreams through a corridor that contains two ticking time bombs. We only know how much time remains for one of those bombs. The other could explode tomorrow or not at all.

The 22-1/2 months until the next session of Congress is sworn in is a long time. The Democrats will try to stop the worst of the changes, but they really have very little practical power to stop things right now. And among the changes that are certainly coming we can expect to see changes to voting and election law designed specifically to help Republicans at the polls next November.

Final notion for today: there's a lot of discussion about parallels between the current situation and Watergate, much of it justified. But there are a couple of important differences, too. The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives during Watergate and were willing to investigate to find the truth about what Nixon and his staff had done. The current GOP leadership in Congress seems genuinely afraid to discover what Trump and his staff have done.

More importantly, perhaps, forty-plus years ago we lived in a country that didn't exist in two separate media bubbles. Although there were substantial disagreements on policy solutions and governmental philosophy, there was general agreement on facts and reality. In the year 2017 that is no longer the case. Four weeks into this we're already on the edge of peak Watergate territory. But as a nation we're not there until the Republicans are there, too. That could happen slowly, quickly, or not at all.

Reality has a way of catching up in the long run. But sometimes it's a long, long run.

Strap yourselves in, kids. This is an E-Ticket ride and it's likely to be a long one.


  1. It would be almost funny to watch, if not for my concerns about the environment, education and thermonuclear war.

  2. If that second bomb could go off at any time, I'd better go and turn on MSNBC right now rather than reading your fascinating blog...