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The Mueller Report is now in, and, while we should obviously want to see as much of the actual report and underlying evidence as possible, a few things are pretty clear.
First, the “Russia collusion” narrative is dead. As annoying as it was to hear President Trump intone “no collusion” endlessly, he was right. I say this as one who has never hid my dislike for many aspects of the Trump presidency. There clearly was, Trump’s equivocation notwithstanding, a concerted Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election to favor Donald Trump. But Mueller made clear that neither Trump nor anyone associated with his campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian efforts. I would note that I have previously written that I was skeptical of the collusion narrative since it implied a level of competence and planning that the Trump administration has not demonstrated anywhere else. Essentially a campaign that was run by amateurs, and was unfamiliar with everything from campaign finance law to Russian intelligence tactics, made a number of questionable decisions, but ultimately did nothing criminal.
Second, it is also clear that Democrats and the media got way to far out over their skis on this one. How many times did we see Adam Schiff and others on TV telling us that they had seen clear evidence of collusion, predicting Trump’s immediate impeachment or even his arrest. Breathless conspiracy theories were advanced on a near daily basis. They now find themselves in the unenviable position of the boy who cried wolf. They continue their mistake if they give in to further conspiracy theories or refuse to accept the report’s conclusion. Democrats should take a deep breath…and keep Schiff far away from the TV cameras.
Trump supporters, on the other hand, are entitled to a victory lap or two. They were right, and a lot of Trump’s opponents were wrong. But they should be careful about getting too carried away. The report is much less clear on the question of obstruction of justice, specifically noting that the investigation “does not exonerate” the president. That doesn’t mean that there was obstruction, but it does mean that some of Trump’s conduct was less than scrupulously honest.
Moreover, the Mueller investigation also makes it clear that Trump surrounded himself with a rogue’s gallery of knaves, scoundrels and liars. That should tell us a great deal about the man who once told us he “only hires the best people.” And, lest we forget, there are still ongoing investigations of Trump’s inaugural committee, business relationships, and payoffs to mistresses. It remains tawdry at best and potentially criminal at worst.
Judging from my social media feeds, it seems unlikely that either Trump opponents or supporters will be taking my advice. Still, there is some hope that this chapter will eventually draw to a close and we can return to debating public policy. There are still important issues facing this country. Maybe we can stop talking about collusion and start talking about them.
The presidency of Donald Trump (those words still boggle the mind) is now a little more than a year old, and last night he delivered his first official State of the Union Address. It would seem a good time, therefore, to step back and take stock of what has certainly been an unconventional presidency.
However, trying to objectively evaluate Trump’s first year in office turns out to be more difficult than either his partisans or opponents would have you believe.
On strictly policy grounds, at least for believers in free markets, personal liberty, and peace like me, Trump has been the sort of typically mediocre President to which I have long become accustomed. He’s certainly done some things I have approved of. Tax reform was more tax cut than “reform,” but it will provide long overdue business tax relief, and should boost competitiveness and economic growth. Similarly, he has pursued an aggressive policy of deregulation that I have mostly cheered. Moreover, one can’t overlook the importance of Trump’s judicial appointments. Neal Gorsuch was a brilliant choice for the Supreme Court, and most of his lower court appointees (with a few conspicuous and sometime hysterical exceptions) have also been excellent. And, while Trump failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, he can at least claim repeal of the health law’s individual mandate.
The economy is doing well – unemployment down, the stock market booming, wages rising. While there is room to debate the degree to which Trump’s policies are responsible, I think it is fair to say that tax cuts, deregulation, and the president’s relentless boosterism has been an important factor. Certainly if the economy was doing poorly, we would blame Trump. It seems fair, therefore, to give him some credit for the upswing.
There have, of course, also been many policies that I vehemently oppose. One can start with the odious Muslim travel ban, and move quickly to a cruel and xenophobic immigration policy. He has too often championed crony capitalism and big spending, while ignoring the threat of a growing national debt. Trillion dollar deficits are expected to return perhaps as soon as next year. He steadfastly remains opposed to any serious reform of the entitlement programs that are threatening to bankrupt this country. Meanwhile, his protectionist trade policies threaten to undo the economic benefits from his tax and regulatory policies. And, the Trump Justice Department is ramping up the failed war on drugs.
On foreign policy, President Trump can legitimately claim success in the war against ISIS. While the larger strategy has generally been a continuation of one developed in the Obama administration, President Trump has pursued it much more aggressively, and significantly loosened the rules of engagement. The victory is on his watch, and he should get the credit. One caveat though: the new policies have significantly increased civilian casualties. Morality aside, this could mean more blowback and terrorism in the future.
Elsewhere, Trump’s belligerency has alienated allies, brought us to the brink of war in Korea, and threatened to bog us down in conflicts around the globe. Anyone who thought that a Trump presidency would mean less foreign adventurism should have been disabused by now. Pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (a position incidentally shared with Hilary Clinton) largely ceded American influence in Asia to China. He continues to see Russia as some sort of quasi-ally. And, far too often he has coddled dictators and authoritarian rulers from Putin and Sisi to Erdogan and Duterte. Human rights don’t just take a back seat to other interests, they don’t seem to be part of the conversation at all.
All in all, if I was grading solely on policy, I would give the Trump presidency my standard solid C (of course I grade on a curve). That’s pretty much how I’ve seen the last several presidencies – a mix of good and bad, drifting sadly toward ever bigger government and ever less freedom.
But, unfortunately, there is more to the Trump presidency than policies. There is also the petty feuds, bizarre tweets, and continuous streem of untruths. While pettiness and dishonesty are hardly unique to this president (just consider his predecessor or his opponent in the last election), President Trump seems determined to take those qualities to, dare we say, “Trumpian” levels. The same is true of his all too frequent attacks on our democratic institutions, particularly the free press. Much of it may simply be Trump blowing off steam, but it does raise concerns.
But most importantly, there is no way to evaluate the Trump presidency without considering the ways in which he has given aid and comfort to racists, misogynists, Islamophobias, and anti-immigration zealots. From smearing all immigrants as criminals (on display again during his SOTU address) to the Muslim ban, from his moral equivalency on Charlottesville to his wish for more white and fewer brown immigrants, Trump’s presidency has not just served up dog whistles to the most antediluvian forces in our society, he has sounded an entire marching band’s worth of drums and trumpets.
This is not just one factor balanced against others. Trump’s casual affinity for racism and other prejudices is fundamental affront to the American ideal. There is no way that people of color, women, the transgendered, gays, immigrants, and other minorities can feel like there are full participants in the American project while they are under attack from the highest office in the land. It is a stain, not easily erased, and it threatens both the unity of this country, and the hard won progress that we have made.
No matter what Trump’s policies are, no matter what other successes he enjoys, this will be the defining element of his presidency.
As the Trump presidential circus lurches uncontrollably through the latest crisis, I have a few thoughts on where things stand now:
1. If the Trump presidency eventually crashes and burns, it won’t be because of some shadowy conspiracy of deep state communist jihadis or whatever, but because of his own hubris, incompetence, and unwillingness to learn from his mistakes. I have no doubt that there are elements of the permanent bureaucracy that are all too happy to leak damaging information about Trump. Moreover, clearly the media is not about to cut Trump the same breaks that they would (and did) give to Obama or Clinton. But none of that would matter if Trump didn’t spend every other morning shooting himself in the foot. Yes, Trump has enemies. And, he is all too willing to hand them additional ammunition.
2. On the larger charges, I very much doubt that Trump was directly and personally involved in colluding with the Russians. Yes, the Russians clearly preferred Trump to Hillary, and also wanted to sow distrust with American democracy in general. But they didn’t really need to coordinate with the Trump campaign. After all, Hillary was doing a fine job with her own version of Trumpian self-immolation. And, as he has shown as president, Donald Trump doesn’t have the attention to detail or strategic aptitude to coordinate a conspiracy with the Russians. He’s just not that “hands on.”
3. That doesn’t mean there is no “there” there. Almost certainly some lower level aides like Roger Stone, Carter Page, and Paul Manafort had some type of contacts with the Russians. Whatever they did was probably pretty minor in terms of “collusion” – with the exception of Manafort, they really didn’t have enough influence or authority to collude – but we will have to see where this all leads. And, former national security advisor Michael Flynn is an especially sleazy special case. If there is any criminal culpability in all this, it looks like Flynn is most in jeopardy. And it looks like a fair amount of what he is accused of was about his personal enrichment, not election meddling.
4. As usual in Washington, the cover-up is worse than the crime. Trump’s bumbling attempts to stop the various investigations may or may not reach the level of obstruction of justice – which legally is both vague and hard to prove – is at the very least unseemly and does serious damage both to his presidency and to American institutions. I have no particular affection for James Comey, who was indeed something of a showboat, and whose Hamlet act on both the Clinton and Trump investigations was wearing thin, but you simply don’t fire the man leading an investigation that may implicate you. And when you do, you don’t lie about your reasons.
5. Trump’s behavior seems to be driven by two things. First, ego and resentment. Trump’s opponents continue to insist that he is not a legitimate president, that somehow Russia-Trump collusion “stole” the election from Hillary Clinton. This is just silly. Clinton lost because she was an abysmal candidate who had no vision for the future of America beyond vague left-wing sloganeering. She ran for president because “it was her turn.” It turns out it wasn’t. But every time Trump’s critics attack his legitimacy, he becomes more determined to prove that there was no Russian involvement, that he won fair and square. After all, this is a guy who keeps a map of the county by county vote results on the Oval office wall.
6. More troubling in the bigger picture, Trump still doesn’t understand the presidency isn’t like being king – or being on a reality television show. He thought he would win the election, give a few orders, things – “great things” – would happen, and he would bask in the applause of an adoring public. Now he continues to find out that governing is “hard.” He refuses to do his homework, or to try to learn how government works. Aides report that they have to slip Trump’s name into every third or fourth paragraph of his national security briefings, because it’s the only way he will keep reading. He still doesn’t understand that you can’t just fire anyone who displeases you, demand that Congress act a certain way, or deliver an applause line even if what you say is untrue.
7. By the way, for Trump supporters, enough of the “whataboutism” arguments. I agree that Hillary and Obama did all sorts of terrible things. But so what? Trump is president now, not either of them. It is his conduct that counts now. How does Hillary’s server, for instance, justify anything that Trump has done? If what Trump did is wrong or stupid or both, it is wrong or stupid or both, no matter how many wrong and stupid things Hillary, or Obama, or Andrew Jackson, for that matter, did.
8. For Trump opponents, please take a deep breath and calm down. We are a long, long way from impeachment. We are not experiencing a constitutional crisis. This is not Watergate. We may yet find out that crimes were committed – or not. So far, the checks and balances in our system are working just fine. And, the more you hyperventilate, the more Trump’s supporters – around 40 percent of the country according to recent polls – circle the wagons. Also, please note that “I really hate him” is not an impeachable offense.
9. Finally, the appointment of a special counsel could actually be good thing for Trump’s agenda. This could end the daily drip, drip, drip of new revelations, and allow the White House to change the subject back to their agenda. We still need an Obamacare replacement, tax reform, deregulation, and so on. Trump could start talking or tweeting about these things, and simply deflect other questions by pointing to the ongoing investigation. Of course that would require a certain amount of self-discipline – oh hell, what am I talking about.
In 1939, Irmgard Köppel, her husband Josef, and their 14 month-old daughter Judith attempted to flee Nazi Germany for the United States, but were turned away at the border and forced to return to Germany. Irmgard and Josef later died at Auschwitz. Judith, however, survived, because she was harbored, at great personal risk, along with five other Jewish children, by French gentiles, Joseph and Eliette Enard.
The question that Trump’s travel and refugee bans asks us as a country is whether we will be more like the U.S. authorities who sent the Köppels and thousands of other Jewish refugees to their deaths, or more like the Enards, who risked their lives to save those of a different faith and nationality.
Trump’s executive order actually does two things, which are being conflated by many critics. First, the administration banned for 90 days entry into the United States by citizens of seven countries (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen). It is not really a Muslim ban, since it applies to non-Muslim citizens of those countries, and does not include Muslims from other countries. However, there is little doubt that it is motivated by a degree of anti-Muslim animus. (The order may also run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which bars immigration discrimination on the basis of national origin).
The seven affected countries were already on a list, drafted by the Obama administration, and codified by Congress as part of the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, whose travelers require stricter scrutiny. As a matter of policy, it makes little sense, since it does not cover countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where there is a real radical Islamicist presence, while including countries like Iraq, where troops are fighting alongside Americans to battle ISIS. The number of Americans killed in this country by citizens of those seven countries has been precisely zero. (And are we really issuing many visas in Yemen these days?) If the policy had been better designed, implemented, and communicated, it would still have been bad policy, but it would probably have ignited less outrage.
But, Trump overruled the Department of Homeland Security, to include green card holders, other permanent lawful residents, and possibly even those with dual citizenship (interpretations differ), provisions which certainly appear to violate U.S. law, and are now being walked back by DHS Secretary Kelly. And, by providing no lead time for implementation, the administration insured chaos at airports nationwide. Those blocked from entry or detained included doctors, scientists, and artists, as well as interpreters and others who had assisted US troops. Already, ISIS has gleefully publicized the order as an example of the US “war on Islam.”
The second part of the executive order is even less defensible. That part indefinitely suspended refugee programs for Syrians and others. Compounding matters, the order says that if the programs resumed, preference will be given to Christians and other non-Muslim refugees. This callous indifference toward the suffering of thousands of men, women, and children caught up in a war that we did much to precipitate, can only be explained by anti-Muslim bias.
We are told, of course, that terrorists may try to use the refugee program to infiltrate our country. One notes that, in 1939, similar arguments were made, including a front page story in the New York Times, to suggest that Nazi spies might infiltrate Jewish refugee groups. But more importantly, there is little evidence that Islamic terrorists are actually using the refugee programs to enter the US. Indeed, if a terrorist wanted to come to the United States, going through the ponderous, bureaucratic, and heavily vetted refugee program is among the least efficient and effective ways to do so. In fact, since 1975, just three Americans have been killed by refugees. (The three refugees in question were Cuban, not Muslim.) Overall, your chances of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.64 billion annually.
No one can guarantee that that record will continue. Indeed, I expect that sooner or later, a Muslim refugee may commit a terrorist atrocity. But, perfect security is never a guarantee, and should not be our overriding goal. We should not allow fear to make America other than what it is. There are values more important than safety.
The United States current accepts less than one half of one percent of the world’s refugees. For a country built on immigration, compassion, and justice — that holds itself out as the beacon of liberty in this world — we can and should do better. This should not – and cannot – be a partisan issue. Rather, this is a time for moral choosing. Every American should speak out.
Joseph and Eliette Enard are memorialized at Yad Vashem as two of the “Righteous among the Nations.” When our reckoning comes, will we be counted on the side of the Enards, or will we let fear and bigotry rule our hearts, our lives, and our country.
Well, last night was a bit of a shock. I certainly got it wrong. Still, here are some thoughts on what happened.
1. This election was something of a primal scream of rage against the machine. Clearly, there are millions of Americans who feel disconnected from – and disrespected by – the political establishment. On the issues, they are right about some things, like crony capitalism and the bail out of Wall Street, and wrong about others, like trade and immigration. But, in the end this isn’t about issues; it is about feeling ignored. The world that these people knew is changing, and the political establishment won’t even talk to them about it. No doubt part of Trump’s support was driven by racial and class resentments, but it was more than that.
2. We remain a deeply divided country. While Trump’s Electoral College victory was impressive, the margins in each state were razor thin. Hillary may still win the popular vote. There clearly are two different Americas. One represents the coasts, the cities, and the suburbs. The other represents vast swaths of exurban and rural middle-America. These regions differ ethnically, in terms of education, and in whether they have benefited from a changing economy and a more interconnected world.
3. Those divisions are not going away any time soon. In fact, they are likely to grow worse. The economy is going to keep changing. Automation will continue to eliminate low-skill jobs and physical labor jobs. Education will have an ever higher premium. At the same time, demographic changes are here to stay. The America of the future will be less white. That will feel increasingly threatening to some people. This election was, to some extent, a backlash.
4. We will have to see if President Trump can soothe these fears and unite the country. His victory speech last night set the right tone. On the other hand, his campaign had played footsie with white nationalism, anti-feminism, and anti-Semitism. There’s more than enough reason to be concerned. I know this morning that many people are terribly frightened. But let’s all take a deep breath. This won’t be the apocalypse. We have survived bad presidents before. My God, we survived Nixon. For the most part our lives have little to do with politics or presidents. We need to be vigilant, defend our rights, fight back where necessary, but not panic.
5. This election was also a rejection of Hillary Clinton. Hillary was, of course, a deeply flawed candidate. Remember that she lost to Barack Obama in 2008, in a race she should have won. She nearly lost the primary to a 75-year-old socialist. Moreover, at a time when people were demanding change, there was nothing less-change than the Clintons. They have been part of the establishment forever. It seems like there has always been a Clinton on our TV screens, usually trailed by some sort of scandal or something else unseemly. Hillary was always going to be a tough sell this year. This year started out with people talking about another Bush running against another Clinton. With her defeat, maybe we can pass on to a new era.
6. The woman card didn’t play, and that’s probably a good thing. Hillary lost 2 to 1 among non-college educated white women. She barely carried college educated white women. Why didn’t the prospect of the first woman president count for more? Perhaps, it is because women have made so much progress that the idea of a woman president didn’t seem like a big deal. We see women Senators and women business leaders on TV everyday. Maybe we are getting sufficiently used to the idea of women in positions of power, that one more break through doesn’t seem unique.
7. This is one reason why libertarians have always opposed the accretion of government power. Liberals may love big government and a powerful executive when President Obama is in charge, but sooner or later a President Trump gets control of that “telephone and a pen.” It is always worth remembering that the new power or program you so love may someday be controlled by your worst enemy. Indeed, now might be a good time for liberals to join those of us fighting to curtail presidential power. Senator Mike Lee’s “Article One Project” would be a good place to start.
8. Gary Johnson’s poor showing showed the limitations of third parties. It is true that Johnson ran a very poor campaign. It wasn’t just the Aleppo moment. He seemed genuinely unprepared for the opportunity that this campaign presented. That said, any third party effort would have been doomed by the institutional barriers that our system presents, such as lack of campaign funds and exclusion from the debate. More importantly, Americans still think in terms of a binary choice. Many of us thought that given two choices that people hated, voters would look for a third choice. Instead, they fell back into voting against the candidate they hated most. Libertarians are going to have to reconsider what role the Libertarian Party can play on the national level.
9. No matter who won this election, I expected to be a minority and in opposition. I agreed with Hillary on virtually nothing. And, I agree with Trump on virtually nothing. This is a bad time worldwide for the sort of classical liberalism I espouse. But being on the winning side doesn’t determine correctness. Trumps election, and the rise of populist authoritarianism worldwide, means that those of us who believe in individual liberty, the rule of law, equal rights, and free markets have more work to do. Today, the job begins again.
10. I was #NeverTrump from the beginning. But, he is now my president. As with any president, I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and time to see what he will do. He may yet surprise me again, and turn out to be a better president than I fear he will be. If so, he will have my support when I think he is right — and my opposition when I think he is wrong. That’s the best any of us can do.
There are times when simple moral decency requires one to rise above politics.
When Donald Trump implied that all Mexicans immigrants were rapists, Republicans rationalized that Hillary Clinton was worse.
When Trump made misogynistic comments about women, Republicans soothed themselves with the possibility that he might make good Supreme Court appointments.
When he threatened to ban an entire religion from this country, Republicans talked about the failures of Barack Obama.
When Trump re-tweeted racist nonsense about black crime, Republicans talked about party unity.
As trump welcomed the Alt-Right and openly avowed racists and anti-Semites into the ranks of his campaign, Republicans endorsed him.
But Trump’s recent attacks on a federal judge for the offense of being “a Mexican” is as morally offensive as any action by a presidential candidate in modern history. Set aside the fact that Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana, and is as American as you or me. Set aside the fact that Judge Curiel is a courageous man who was actually forced into hiding after taking on the Mexican drug cartels. Set aside, even, the impropriety of a presidential candidate trying to intimidate a judge in a case where he is a litigant.
Set aside all that. Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel is plain and simply racist. The idea that Americans are defined by the ancestry and that people of certain ethnicity cannot be trusted to do their jobs, is the very heart of racism. It is wrong. More than wrong, it is morally repugnant.
So to my Republican friends, I say this is no longer about whether Trump might be slightly better than Hillary on this issue or that one. We would not have said, “well, David Duke had great views on the Second Amendment,” “I like George Wallace’s tax policy,” or “The Klan has a point about quotas.”
This is now about conscience. To continue to support Donald Trump is to acquiesce in the darkest impulses of mankind and stains the American soul. It is not about politics, it is about right and wrong.
I have known Paul Ryan since he was a legislative staffer. I know he is a fundamentally good and decent man. But in continuing to support Trump, he diminishes himself. The same is true for all those other Republicans, from Marco Rubio to John McCain to Bob Corker, who have sold their moral credibility for the sake of party unity or some other temporary political gain. It must stop.
When, someday in the future, your children or grandchildren ask you where you stood today, how will you answer them?
As the choices for president become clearer, people ask me if there are any circumstances under which I could support Donald Trump. The answer is a clear and unequivocal no.
It’s not that I disagree with him on nearly every major issue, though I do. His specific refusal to reform entitlements, combined with his proposals to increase spending, threatens to bankrupt the nation. His anti-trade position would take us back to the days of Smoot-Hawley. He supports eminent domain abuse and corporate welfare. He backed TARP and the bank bailout. And I could go on and on. But as a libertarian, I don’t ever expect to find a candidate I agree with on everything. Hell, I didn’t agree with Rand Paul on everything. I certainly don’t agree with Hillary Clinton on, well, anything. For me, voting is almost always choosing the lesser of evils.
And it’s not his fundamental dishonesty, both as a candidate and a businessman. If I’ve learned one thing in Washington, it’s that politicians lie. Besides, Hillary Clinton has turned lying into a high art form. She lies even when the truth is perfectly fine — just for practice. Compared to her, Trump is an amateur liar.
It’s not even his temperament, though I find his bullying and name calling to be absurdly juvenile. He is thin skinned, and tolerates no dissent. His trademarks are braggadocio and loud shouting. He thinks that leadership is jumping in front of the mob and giving them whatever they want. That’s not exactly the sort of person I want with the nuclear codes. But to speak of an egotistical thin skinned politician is practically redundant. And, while Hillary may be more cold-blooded, she is no less wedded to her own lust for power. And vengeance? Thy name is Clinton.
Rather, I oppose Trump because I believe he is truly dangerous for the American experiment. This is a man who casually promises to commit war crimes. This is a man who wants to rewrite libel laws so he can sue journalists who write negative stories about him. This is a man who has tolerated if not encouraged violence by his followers. After a protester was beaten up at his event, he said that “maybe he should have been roughed up. What he was doing was disgusting.” He said of another protester, “I want to punch him in the face.” He praised Putin and said the Chinese “almost blew it” in Tienanmen Square, but finally “showed strength.” Scary stuff.
Most importantly, the man has consistently tolerated and encouraged outright bigotry. In fairness, politicians cannot be held responsible for every action of their followers. And politics often means associating with unsavory characters. Ted Cruz shared a stage with a preacher who says gays should be put to death. Barack Obama hung out with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. But Trump goes far beyond the usual necessities of politics.
He could barely bring himself to denounce David Duke and the KKK. (Aside from his wink and nod with Jake Tapper, consider his routine “I repudiate” of the Klan, with the 15 minutes he spends trashing, say, Vicente Fox.) He routinely re-tweets memes from white nationalist groups, and has tolerated their presence in his campaign. His misogynistic comments about women are legend. He mocks and denigrates Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled, and others. This is not about not being politically correct; this is about playing with evil.
In some ways the left is suffering from too often crying wolf. Almost any opposition to President Obama has been denounced as racist. We live in an era of “microaggressions.” But this time the wolf is here.
To support Trump is to give voice and legitimacy to the darkest and most repressive forces in America. That can never be allowed. For that reason, I say #NeverTrump.