Wednesday, January 2, 2019

BTRTN: Trump in the Bunker

Tom with the BTRTN December 2018 Month in Review.


I once worked for a company that was in trouble.  The soon-to-be-fired CEO and his management team were desperately trying to save their jobs.  Whenever one member of the team was fired or quit, they didn’t hire a replacement or promote someone; instead, one of the remaining members of the motley crew simply absorbed another title.  One poor executive ended up with the rather ungainly portfolio of human resources, public relations, strategic planning and, finally, the Far East operating unit.  Ultimately, the entire business was run by only a few trusted lackeys; no one else wanted these jobs and, also to the point, no one else was trusted to hold them.

Image result for Trump looking downI thought of this when Mick Mulvaney, the Director of Office of Management and Budget, became Trump’s “Acting” Chief of Staff.  Mulvaney had already absorbed responsibility for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  But apparently he was the only one who wanted the job, and one of the few Trump trusted enough to offer the job.  And so the Mulvaney portfolio grows and grows -- who knows, he might even end up as Secretary of Defense, too.  Merriam-Webster defines “bunker mentality” as “a state of mind especially among members of a group that is characterized by chauvinistic defensiveness and self-righteous intolerance of criticism.”  That sounds about right, and the Mulvaney Empire is clear evidence that Donald Trump has taken up full-time residence in that bunker.

December was a remarkable month, a month of activity appalling to Democrats and Republicans alike. The GOP chorus included fed up Generals James Mattis and John Kelly, who both finally left office with some well-chosen words; Lindsay Graham, who went nuts over Trump’s sudden Syria withdrawal announcement; Mitch McConnell, who defended the longstanding world order Trump is seeking to undo; FOX News’ Ann Coulter, who’s sharp critique of Trump led directly to a partial shutdown of the federal government; and her FOX colleague, attack dog Tucker Carlson, of all people, who turned on Trump with these words:

“His chief promises were that he would build the wall, defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare, and he hasn’t done any of those things. I’ve come to believe that Trump’s role is not as a conventional president who promises to get certain things achieved to the Congress and then does. I don’t think he’s capable.  I don’t think he’s capable of sustained focus. I don’t think he understands the system. You really have to understand how it works and you have to be very focused on getting it done, and he knows very little about the legislative process, hasn’t learned anything, and surrounded himself with people that can get it done, hasn’t done all the things you need to do so. It’s mostly his fault that he hasn’t achieved those things.”

But true Trumpsters put little stock in any politician’s critique, be they from the left or the right.  To wit, Trump’s approval rating continues to hold in the mid-40’s, despite the sturm und drang from all sides.  This is hard to imagine, given the volatility of the month and the shattering of the status quo.  And yet it is so.

The month of December began with Robert Mueller‘s determined march to the inner circle of the Trump White House.  The revelation by Michael Cohen that he (and thus Trump) had lied about the duration of the Trump Hotel Moscow negotiations (that they actually concluded in June, 2016, when Trump was the presumptive GOP nominee, long after Trump’s public declaration that they ended in January, 2016) placed a huge Russia-related conflict of interest squarely in the midst of the campaign.  And the revelation that Paul Manafort had lied to investigators over his Russian contacts added more juice to the overarching question of the investigations:  if there was nothing wrong, why are so many senior Trump officials lying about their Russian connections?

Cohen was soon sentenced to three years in prison, having also implicated Trump directly in the campaign-saving hush money payments to two women who had had affairs with Trump.  Later in the month, General Michael Flynn’s sentencing hearing blew up from a formality into a cause celebre.  The sentencing judge harangued Flynn for insinuating that he had been “tricked” by the FBI during their interrogation of him (that resulted in his crime); Flynn meekly backed down from this charge, and the hearing was delayed for several months.  Two Cohen associates were indicted, and Trump’s charitable foundation was shut down.  All of this made it perfectly clear that Mueller and his New York State colleagues were closing in on Trump himself, with most of the smart money betting on a first quarter 2019 release of Mueller’s final report.

Soon thereafter, the GOP controlled Senate voted 56-41 to withdraw military support for the Saudi’s war on Yemen, the clearest possible signal that the Senate was not accepting Trump’s defense of Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

But all this was but a prelude to the truly earthshaking news of the month.  Trump abruptly announced, just days before Christmas – in a bizarre video staged on the South Lawn of the White House – that the U.S. had “won against” ISIS and thus he was withdrawing the remaining 2,000 troops from Syria within 30 days.  This shocking announcement, made in spite of the contrary advice of his military and national security advisers, resulted in the immediate resignation of General Mattis.  Mattis chose to depart with a striking statement that made clear he and Trump had parted company on policy, not only on Syria, but on Trump’s constant undercutting of the alliance and partnership structure that had governed world order since World War II.

Mattis’ and Kelly’s departure, and the twin interim replacements of more pliable officials, signaled the end of the “human guard rails” era, in which independent-minded, strong-willed global sophisticates – specifically Mattis, Tillerson and Kelly, but also Nikki Haley, H.R. McMaster and others – sought to restrain Trump’s worst instincts and quietly reassure the world that the U.S. would indeed live up to its obligations.  With all of them now departed, replaced by lackeys, the western world awaits the next crisis with a sickening sense of what an unchecked and cornered Trump might do in service of his own warped cause, his primal instinct for self-preservation.

While the Syria/Mattis crisis unfolded in real time, the Senate reached a sensible compromise on the impending government shutdown, finding a solution to the vexing “wall funding” issue, with White House sign-off (so everyone believed).  But then Coulter and company took up the cause, vilifying Trump for “backing down” on his wall commitment all through the ensuing news cycle, with an audience of one in mind.  That one, Trump, listened hard and quickly disavowed the agreement, announcing he now needed full wall funding in the bill, and took full and complete ownership of the impending shutdown.  That shutdown did indeed occur and continued through year end, awaiting the new Democratic-controlled House to assume power on January 3rd before the next chapter is written.

Even the signature Trump “accomplishment,” the appointments of Robert Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, to create a clear five-judge conservative majority, is not off to the roaring right start the GOP craved.  Twice in December Chief Justice John Roberts unexpectedly voted with the liberal minority, once in declining to review whether states can block Planned Parenthood and other providers of abortion from their Medicaid programs, and again to rule against the Trump administration’s request for permission to immediately deny asylum to illegal immigrants.

Through all of this stormy month, the best barometer for the state of the world was perhaps the Dow Jones Industrial Index.  Trump has long used the Dow as a benchmark for his own presidency, even though the uptick in his time has been simply a straight line extension of a long rally that began a month after Obama took office.  But in the month of December the Dow changed by more than 300 points on 9 out of 19 trading days, 8 of them for the worse.  For the month the Dow declined by a harrowing 9%, eliminating all of the gains for the year and more (the full year decline was thus 6%).  Needless to say, Trump is no longer humping the Dow, and has set up Fed Chair Jerome Powell as the fall guy for the economic woes, even investigating whether he has the authority to fire Powell (he does not).

The year ended with Elizabeth Warren’s announcement that she was formally entering the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. Warren is a bit diminished from her halcyon days as a fighter for consumers and against income inequality, but her announcement set the stage for perhaps dozens of others in the coming months. 

The year 2019 now is upon us.  Front and center will be the shutdown, where the Dems hold all the cards (including the court of public opinion:  an Ipsos/Reuters polls has Americans blaming Trump 47/33 versus the Democrats), and Pelosi will make her moves.  Then, as stated, a slew of Democratic candidates will announce their intentions.  The Democratic House Committee chairs will begin their very public investigations of the Trump administration.  And at some point, the inscrutable Robert Mueller will speak. 

Fasten your seat belts.


As stated, through it all, Trump’s approval rating remained at 44% for the month, at the exact same level as the last two months, and basically in the same statistical range as the whole of 2018.  There was no change in the post-Mattis period at the end of the month, either.





The “Trumpometer” declined to +23 in December from +26 in November, roiled by volatile metrics.  The Dow Jones dropped by 9% in the month, and consumer confidence flagged as well, but these drops were offset by the positive news of declining gas prices.  The +23 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +23% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration (with more explanation below, if needed).

End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 11/30/2018
Trump 12/31/2018
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)

  Unemployment Rate
  Consumer Confidence
  Price of Gas
  Dow Jones

Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017, on an average percentage change basis... The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP. 

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