Wednesday, May 31, 2017

BTRTN May 2017 Month in Review: The “Downward Spiral” of a “Complete Disaster”

We titled our May Month in Review thusly for a very specific reason – the quoted words were uttered by Republicans.  “Downward spiral” was used by Senator Bob Corker to describe the Trump Administration’s dismal fortunes. He uttered this phrase on May 16, just after the twin bombshells of Trump firing FBI Director James Comey and the news that Trump had shared intelligence secrets with our sworn enemy, the Russians.  Imagine how he must have felt later that week when he heard the startling revelation that Trump had asked Comey to drop the investigation of former National Security Advisor for a Couple of Weeks, Michael Flynn.

We quote Bob Corker because he is a Republican, not a Democrat; he is a leader in the Senate, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not an unknown; he is conservative, not a moderate like Susan Collins; he is not a noted “maverick” like John McCain or a freewheeling gadfly like Lindsay Graham; he is up for reelection in 2018, and cannot sit it out.  If the Republicans are going to go down the road of impeachment at some point, it is Republicans like Bob Corker who are going to have to abandon Trump.  And maybe his assessment is the beginning of that process – though, for now, the GOP leadership, as exemplified by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, and many others as well, have yet to utter anything other than mild disapprobation.

“Complete disaster” is John Boehner’s assessment of the domestic side of the Trump presidency, and Boehner, unshackled in his retirement, likely is speaking out loud what most of the Republican Party thinks privately.  (The Dems, of course, have plenty of public voices on the matter).)  He stands as a provocative counterpoint to his successor, Ryan, who mutters vague words that are designed to evade, and have the effect of enabling Trump (though Ryan does look absolutely miserable every single second of every single day).

Republicans – and politicians of all stripes – may lack courage, but they are not illogical.  They are highly – highly, like trained dogs – attuned to take whatever actions are necessary to secure their reelection and, in the case of the leadership, maintain their positions.  Boehner, for all of the pummeling he took from the Dems, actually decided he would no longer play the game of sacrificing all to maintain his position, and he paid for it with his career.  At peace with his decision, he freely speaks his mind. 

The elected official, on the other hand, is slavishly devoted to his or her own ambition – and for current GOP national officials, the key indicator here is Trump’s approval rating.  More on that below, but the bottom line is this:  Trump’s approval rating -- among Republicans, right now -- is 84%.  And in our highly gerrymandered times, all most Republicans have to worry about is not getting challenged in primaries by other Republicans.  So if 84% of their constituents still favor Trump, abandoning him is political suicide.

The month of May was truly disastrous for Trump.  It got off to what passes for a great start (for him), with the passing of one albatross of a bill, the American Health Care Act, a bill that is destined to end the careers of perhaps dozens of members of the House in 2018 whether it becomes law or not.  The bill, as is, will not receive any consideration in the Senate, who will attempt to draft their own bill (a process that is not going well so far at all and may very well end soon). 

But after that “success,” the wheels came off very quickly, with a tsunami of actions and revelations that thrust the already roiling White House into a state of siege.  To recap – we all just lived through this as a seemingly endless run of 5 PM “breaking news” alerts, but to see it all at once is truly mindboggling – here is the chronology:

·         May 8:  Sally Yates testifies – brilliantly – that she warned the White House Counsel on January 26, less than a week after the Inaugural, that NSA Michael Flynn had been compromised by the Russians, that is, our highest foreign security official was susceptible to blackmail.  This undermined the White House version of events, which rendered Yates’ warning as far more benign (a “heads up”) and called into question the ensuing long delay (18 days) before Trump finally fired Flynn.  What was he waiting for?

·         May 9:  Trump fires Comey, allegedly on the advice of Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, over the mishandling of the Hillary Clinton investigation.  Trump later admits that he misread the likely reaction to the firing, which he (on the advice of Kushner) thought would receive bi-partisan support, ignoring the very obvious reality that the firing would draw an instant parallel to Nixon’s firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, as both Comey and Cox were tasked with investigating potential Administration wrongdoing.

·         May 11:  Trump, in an interview with Lester Holt of NBC, completely undermines his Administration’s official explanation for the Comey firing by admitting he had decided to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s recommendation, which re-focused the conversation around obstruction of justice, since Trump referenced the handling of the Russian investigation as the real reason for his decision.

·         May 11:  On this same day, it was revealed that Trump had asked Comey for his “loyalty” in a private dinner conversation just one week after Trump took office.

·         May 15:  It is revealed that Trump gave the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister highly classified intelligence that could expose key sources; it was later revealed the information had come from an ally, later identified as Israel, which made the disclosure even more problematic.  Trump had the legal right to declassify anything he wished, but the judgment involved in doing so was widely reviled.

·         May 16:  It is revealed that Comey took detailed, contemporaneous notes of his meetings with Trump, including one in February in which Trump had pressured Comey to drop the Flynn investigation – a smoking gun, if proven, that appears to be as damning as the famed June 23, 1972 (six days after Watergate) Nixon command to H.R. Haldeman to “call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this {Watergate} case, period!”

·         May 17:  Rosenstein names James Mueller Special Counsel, tasking the former FBI Director with conducting an independent investigation into potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election, as well as other matters that “may arise in the investigation,” which certainly would cover the potential obstruction of justice issues (e.g., the Comey Notes).

·         May 19:  A “senior White House official” is named a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation, signaling that the probe is not merely focused on former Trump officials like Flynn and Paul Manafort but now reaches into the current White House.

·         May 22:  It is revealed that Trump asked Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, and Mike Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency, to publicly deny the existence of any Russian collusion evidence.

·         May 25:  Jared Kushner is identified as the “senior White House official” was is the “person of interest” in the investigation, indicating that not only has the probe reached into the current White House, but to the person widely seen as closest to Donald Trump.

·         May 26:  It is revealed that Kushner and Flynn sought to establish a “backchannel” to the Russians in a meeting with them last December, apparently in the hope of avoiding U.S. intelligence scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, the national conversation in this period turned to Nixon comparisons and talk of impeachment proceedings.  The Mueller appointment was widely praised on both sides of the aisle, putting teeth (in the form of independence and resources) into the investigation and even giving the GOP some cover in the steady onslaught, knowing that they could now defer to the Mueller probe with the knowledge that it will take time.

It is worth reminding everyone that Mueller’s brief concerns potential criminal wrongdoing, and thus his task differs from that of Congress, particularly with respect to the finding of impeachable offenses.  In general, that is still the House’s business, and their conclusion can be based on a different standard than merely breaking the law.  Theoretically, Mueller could exonerate Trump from criminal charges and the House could still rightly find him guilty of impeachable offenses, if a pattern of behavior is deemed as detrimental to the nation, such as creating an environment where obstruction of justice (or conflicts of interest) can fester.  Said more simply, the impeachment process is a political one, not a criminal one.

After this slew of actions and disclosures, Trump embarked on a foreign policy tour notable mostly for highly stage-managed moments in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican; his unwillingness to face the press directly; the mutual distance and cold relationship he has with fellow G7 world leaders; the public dressing down of NATO allies for underspending on defense; the oafish shoving aside of the Prime Minister of Montenegro; the distancing of U.S. policy from “Article 5” NATO commitments (“one for all….”); an unwillingness to affirm the Paris Accords as did the other members of the G7; and the complete absence of Twitter rants.  He also got the grisliest kind of news deflection with the Manchester, UK terrorist bombing of an Ariande Grande concert, which took the headlines away from Trump and allowed him to make the kind of anti-terrorist statements that play well with his base.

As Trump returns, he faces the Kushner debacle; the ongoing media frenzy – a media stoked by their crucial role in the May revelations, fueled by an unending stream of leaks that seem to be essentially a form of whistle-blowing by fed-up White House staffers; a Trump budget that is dead on arrival; and the apparent stalling of his three largest domestic initiatives – health care, tax reform, and immigration (the latter stymied yet again by a circuit court that upheld the current suspension of the revised travel ban, virtually assuring Supreme Court review).  It is difficult to see what could possibly be a near-term catalyst that could improve Trump’s fortunes.  I don’t think the anticipated White House shake-up will do much, unless he manages to find a Jim Baker-type willing to come in and run the joint with Trump’s full authority.  It certainly is not the laughable notion of a team of lawyers vetting his tweets (what, at 5 AM?) or replacing punching bag Sean Spicer with another non-credible, undermined communications lackey.


It’s not that the Republican office holders lack the ability to see the obvious, that Trump is overmatched, underprepared, simplistic, narcissistic, unfocused, advised by political naifs and quite possibly unbalanced.  They see all that as well as the rest of us.  But, as stated, they are watching Trump’s approval rating which, while sagging, is still well above the danger zone.  As you can see in the chart below, Trump’s rating has trended down to the 40% mark in the latter part of May, and his net score has gone from 0 to -15.


May 1-11
May 12-31

For those of you who believe that there is a floor on Trump’s support -- those 40% who still support him, despite the obvious madness -- it is worth noting that his “strongly approve” score (a subset of the overall score) has swung from a high of 44% (just after the Inaugural, per Rasmussen) to a low of 26% on May 16.  So there is a part of the Trump base who are indeed tempering their views – and could theoretically jump ship if the barrage of revelations continue, or are definitely proven, or both.  Trump’s true core (those who think he can no wrong and will never abandon him) is probably only around 20% (Rasmussen tends to GOP bias).

How low does Trump’s overall approval rate have to go to threaten Trump’s support by the GOP leadership?  Here is some historical perspective, a look at the highs and lows of approval ratings for every President since FDR.

Bush 43
Bush 41

Trump is the only President who has (as yet) failed to crack the 50% mark in approval, which is noteworthy because each one of these Presidents started out over 50%, most of them well over that marker in their honeymoon period.  Trump has made history with his terrible start.

But on the flip side, Trump has a long way to go hit bottom.  Five of his predecessors managed to get below 30%, and Nixon and Truman got below 25%.  Trump is far from that.

My feeling is that an approval rating in the low 30% range would cause defections, particularly the closer it came to primaries and elections in contested states.  For now, Trump is still 5+ points above that zone.


The Trumpometer improved from -11 in April to -6 in May, largely on the strength of a revised Q1 GDP from 0.7% to a still anemic 1.2%.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Trump’s presidency is staked on economic renewal, and his Budget is forecasting robust economic growth of 3% per annum.  He has much work to do to get there.

"Clinton-ometer"        1/20/2001
"Bush-      ometer"        1/20/2009
"Obameter"      1/20/2017
"Trump-ometer" 4/30/2017
"Trump-ometer" 5/31/2017

  Unemployment Rate
  Consumer Confidence
  Price of Gas
  Dow Jones

Monday, May 29, 2017

Amerika First

Donald Trump vowed to put "America First," promising that "the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer." Steve reflects on the myriad of ways Donald Trump betrayed these pledges in one week alone.

Ever wonder what Donald Trump means by “America First?” This week we found out.

It turns out that “America First” is one of those phrases whose meaning is derived wholly from context, invoked opportunistically when convenient, and revealed with his taxation and healthcare plans -- and then the stunning revelations about Jared Kushner --  to be a disgraceful deceit… malevolent, disingenuous, and perhaps treasonous. 

Our loyal allies in NATO learned that “America First” is a great sound-byte to send back across the Atlantic to the Fox News faithful, as Donald Trump glossed over the profound strategic and moral basis for the NATO Alliance and got straight to the part about dividing the check. “America First” in this context meant photo-ops of Donald Trump, the tough guy allegedly looking after the American tax payer, demanding that all those deadbeat European countries fork over their cash. There was the irony of Trump leading a ceremony about September 11, which was the only time that NATO’s Article 5 – the “one-for-all, all-for-one” mutual defense clause -- had ever been actually invoked because a NATO nation had been attacked. The country NATO nations raced to defend? That would be the United States of America.  Sound-byte bites back.

But, hey, do you want to hear a real first for America? How about having the leader of the Catholic Church chastise the United States of America for being backward about science? When the Pope suggested that Trump read his encyclical on climate change, he was not falling back on that old Ex Cathedra Papal Infallibility justification, he was invoking a rich catechism of extremely secular climate data. For the Pope to find it necessary to bring the President of the United States up to date on science is like Leonard Bernstein feeling a need to show Elvis Presley how to grind his pelvis.

In Saudi Arabia, we learned that Donald Trump will hate-talk the Muslim faith with incendiary intent while addressing frenzied stadium mobs in Red State Nation, but shrink his demeanor and shrivel his message when he actually finds himself under the laser-beam scrutiny of powerful global Muslim leaders in Riyadh.  Put another way, Trump will say one thing in America first, and then say the exact opposite when in the Middle East. The speech was generally well received, but reviewers seemed to reach this conclusion largely because Trump had finally demonstrated an ability to mentally compartmentalize the world’s one billion Muslims as distinct and separate from the deranged murderous jihadists who inhumanly target eight-year-old girls attending an Ariana Grande concert. Spare us the Fox anchors’ breathlessly reporting the arrival a new “statesmanlike” Trump every time the President manages to read a prepared speech from a teleprompter.  When will they finally figure out that he only reads verbatim from a canned speech when he is scared stiff, knows he is in way over his head, and can’t afford the risk of an extemporaneous off-the-cuff screw-up? 

Still and all, the trappings, pageantry, and gleaming wheels-up video of high-level global diplomacy could make even Barney Rubble look like Harrison Ford in Air Force One. Limited to highly scripted photo-ops and mandatory good behavior, the Trump team probably felt he had a pretty good week in all the countries he set foot where he was not President.

However, earlier in the week, far, far from the Wailing Wall, we heard the loud, anguished cry from the Congressional Budget Office lowering the boom on the new Trump healthcare bill, which the House passed enthusiastically without waiting for the inconvenient matter of whether it made economic sense.  You may recall that it was the CBO’s report way back in, uh, five weeks ago, that dealt the body-blow to the original euthanized Trump healthcare proposal. Apparently the white mice in mazes in Psych 101 B.F. Skinner experiments learn faster than House Republicans, who somehow thought that a few tweaks to forge an unholy compromise would enable this homely caterpillar of legislation to emerge transcendent as a luminous healthcare butterfly beloved by all. But all of the elements that caused the bill to cover fewer ailments, cover fewer people, and cost more than ObamaCare were pre-existing conditions from the original DOA Republican legislation. To simplify the C.B.O.’s verdict on the new healthcare bill: it is every bit as stupid as the first one. 

But the real issue in the C.B.O. report is the degree to which it solidifies that sense Donald Trump’s idea of “America First” is actually that some Americans are more first than others. Swept into office on a wave of anti-establishment populism stoked by Trump’s often brazenly inaccurate assertions, Trump promised that a vast segment of "forgotten Americans" would be forgotten no longer.  He promised that their healthcare could be higher quality and less expensive. It took Trump a mere four months to not simply forget, but to wage open warfare on the vulnerable people who naively bought into his fantasy.  

The C.B.O. report concludes that Trump’s health plan will reduce the number of insured Americans by 23,000,000, and it will make healthcare vastly more expensive for low-income elderly people.  And the money saved by stripping away affordable healthcare from Trump’s “forgotten Americans” will go largely into the pockets of wealthy individuals, whose taxes had been raised to fund Obamacare, and will now be reduced accordingly. America First? More accurately, "Rich America First."

Later in this same eventful week, Trump doubled down on his “some Americans are more first than others” philosophy with a non-starter proposal for overhauling our taxation. Again, the primary beneficiaries of Trump’s tax plan are phenomenally wealthy individuals, who particularly scored with the proposed elimination of the estate tax. This hocus-pocus plan is scotch-taped together through the assumption of sustained 3% GNP growth, a number that Trump’s spokespersons assure us used to be normative. Perhaps this is just one more example of Trump wanting to make America great again by returning to the 1950s. The problem is that banking on a GDP growth rate considerably higher than the actual rate in the past decade is like justifying your new Lamborghini by explaining to your spouse that the payments will easily be covered by the vastly-above-average raise you are certain you will receive every year for the next decade. Not many couples would bet the college fund on such foolishness, but that is the core premise of the Trump tax plan.

Not lost in all this: The Trump tax plan was delivered at roughly the same time Trump was shaking down our European allies for NATO money, claiming he was “looking out for American tax payers.”  If only he were actually looking out for American tax payers on the actual subject of paying American taxes.

What is startling is that despite all of the above, Monday through Thursday was putting Trump on track for what was being tallied as a damn good week for a damn weak Presidency. The absence of Greenland-sized gaffes, new Russian scandals, and spewing molten Twitter lava allowed Trump to make it through Hump Day with only a reproachful hand slap from Melania to slow his mojo.

And then Thursday happened. Thursday, that is, followed by Friday.

On Thursday came the saucy revelation that Jared Kushner is officially “under scrutiny” by the FBI in connection with its investigation of the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian intelligence. Reporters and talking heads went to standard liberal lengths to parse the meaning of “under scrutiny,” bending over backwards to convey that phrase this did not imply that the President’s son-in-law and apparent closest advisor was being investigated for wrongdoing. The FBI, it seems, has its own little color-coded chart, and being “under scrutiny” lies in some gray area south of merely being a “person of interest” but not currently “under investigation.” Jared may have been soothing Ivanka’s no-doubt jangled nerves about the ambiguities of FBI terminology when all of a sudden Friday happened.

On Friday, the Washington Post broke the story that in December, the son-in-law of the President of the United States had an undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in which the topic of establishing a secret “back-channel” method of communication between the Trump transition team and the Russian government was discussed.

Jaws now black and blue from crashing on tables with each succeeding Trump gaffe, embarrassment, and apparent obstruction of justice once again descended in mass, with disdain and distaste now supplanted by open-mouthed disbelief.  What in God’s name did Kushner want to talk about with the Russian government that he so desperately needed to conceal from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies?  Did Kushner really propose using private Russian communications channels specifically to hide the content of his communication with Russia from the United States government? What possible charitable interpretation could the Trump team paste on a plan to conceal covert communication with a hostile sovereign nation?

A tasty side dish to Kushner’s inexplicable gambit was the fact that Michael Flynn was in the meeting. This, of course, suddenly provides blinding clarity as to why Donald Trump was begging everybody in official Washington to drop the investigation into Flynn. Trump knew that if Flynn felt cornered, he could cop a plea in exchange for Kushner’s head.

Kushner, of course, is direct connection to the Oval Office. If we find a "smoking gun," it's a good bet that Jared Kushner will be the one smoking it. It’s possible for Trump to play games about whether he knew what was going on while Manafort and Flynn were supposedly free-lancing with Russian intelligence. But for Donald Trump to assert that he had absolutely no knowledge of Kushner’s proposed private back-channel places Trump in a highly precarious position. If that is interpreted by Ivanka and Jared as hanging Jared out to dry, what follows is a Trump nuclear family nuclear meltdown. Trump's return to broadcast television will not be with The Apprentice, but with an horrendous re-make of Family Feud.

As a final note, there is the Ken Starr Rule of Special Prosecutor Privilege, which holds that once there are grounds to investigate Kushner, the FBI is not going to limit their investigation to dealings with Russia. They are going to take that Swiss Army knife with the fancy can opener and filet Kushner’s financial innards going back to his frat house. Nothing will be off limits. Anything Kushner has ever done gets thrown into the plea bargain broth. Ten years at that minimum security facility in Englewood ought to be plenty of time to read up on why they put those nepotism rules in place.

Call it Amerika First, the final and most insidious perversion of Donald Trump’s promise.  In this case, the promise to place America First is intentionally undermined by secret conversations intended to keep America in the dark about private negotiations with a rival who has demonstrated their intent to sabotage our democracy.   America first?  Not exactly.  The Trump team wants to give information to the Russians first, and keep it from Americans as long as possible. Right now the Trump White House looks like floating pond scum obscuring the view, making sure Amerika is the last to know.

Last week we wrote that the endgame on the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian government might be faster than we think, and we pointed to the flood of leaks out of the White House and the intelligence agencies as one critical reason.

The story on Kushner is the latest – and perhaps most spectacular – example of the whistle-blowers, outraged career government servants, and red, white, and blue patriots inside our government who are actually doing for real what Trump so cynically postures and pretends.

They are putting America first.

How can Donald Trump promise to put America First when he doesn’t even know what America is, where it begins, or, for that matter, how it could end?

The rest of us now know for sure. 

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