April 8, 2018 --
One could have a lively discussion of which White House cabinet member is causing the most harm to the presidency, the nation, and the world at large. I lay my money down on EPA chief Scott Pruitt. This is so important to every aspect of our lives – how healthy is the food we eat, the air we breathe, and our national homeland security – not only to us, but to the whole world one way or another. His actions affect every aspect of our lives and activities – the impact of Russia on our democracy, how we react to climate change; national security; relations with other countries; and continuing developments of the special counsel. So many good writers and commentators are thoroughly addressing the fine details so rather than attempt to summarize them, I suggest you make your choice of who to follow.
Dana Milbank, WaPo: How Trump is transforming himself into the greatest president ever
Outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster, in a parting shot at President Trump, said this week that “we have failed to impose sufficient costs” on Russia — joining a consensus view that Trump has been inexplicably soft on Vladimir Putin’s assaults on democracy and stability.
But we can all stand down.
“Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” Trump announced Tuesday afternoon.
I felt similar relief when, even though he used anti-Semitic themes in his campaign and hesitated to condemn vandalism against Jewish targets, Trump informed us that “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
I likewise was not troubled by Trump’s talk about “shithole” countries in Africa, or his defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville, because, as Trump assured us, “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”
I don’t share the stock market’s jitters over the trade war Trump started, because I recall his assurance that “nobody knows more about trade than me.”
The allegations about his infidelity and his boasts about assaulting women are not troubling, because “nobody respects women more than I do,” and “nobody loves the Bible more than I do.”
The outrage about him mocking a disabled journalist on the campaign trail? Misplaced — because “nobody’s better to people with disabilities than me.”
You think he’s foul-mouthed and his insult-an-hour leadership is un-presidential? WRONG! “I have one of the great temperaments,” he said.
And on those occasions when Trump pits Americans against each other by race and ethnicity, fear not: “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”
Nobody! Take that, Frederick Douglass — though you’ve done an amazing job and I’m glad to see you are getting recognized more and more.
In rare moments of self-doubt, Trump admits he may not be quite as great as the Great Emancipator, but, he said, “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”
It’s a signature Trump move: Don’t just deny the charge but declare yourself to be the polar opposite (while accusing your opponents of whatever you were accused of: You’re the puppet!). He can’t be a racist, or soft on Russia, or anything bad — because he’s the furthest possible thing from that.
It’s all terribly reassuring.
Trump’s biggest-and-greatest talk defines him, of course, and ranks him at the pinnacle of all human endeavors. His “I.Q. is one of the highest.” He has “the best words.” He is a “stable genius.” He has “one of the great memories of all time.” He was “always the best athlete.” His building makes “the best taco bowls.” He knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and nobody “in the history of the world” knows more about taxes than Trump.
Some might quibble, saying his claim to be “the most militaristic person ever” is unfair to Genghis Khan, or that his claim that “nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump” forgets the people who built the Panama Canal. But to point this out would be to further the historic persecution of Trump, victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” In fact, “no politician in history. . . has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
Instead, I resolve to be comforted by his superlatives, no matter how flagrantly they assault reality.
I was concerned about the flood of international criticism of Trump — until Trump said that he received “red carpet like I think probably nobody has ever received” in Asia, and that his speech in Poland “was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president.”
I worried about his cowboy talk of raining fire and fury on fat Rocket Man and his puny nuclear button, but I’m comforted to know that “there’s nobody that understands the horror of nuclear better than me.”
The rash of ethical scandals among Cabinet members was troubling, until I remembered that Trump’s Cabinet has “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever.”
Trump’s tweets seem to show he’s unaware of policy details, so I’m relieved to discover that he understands legislation better “than any president that’s ever been in office.”
And despite figures showing Congress has ground to a halt, I’m delighted to learn that “never has there been a president . . . who’s passed more legislation,” except for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In coming months, I expect Trump will usher in a new caravan of superlatives: Most faithful spouse in history. Least nepotistic person in America. Greatest gentleman in the world. Least susceptible to flattery. Most polite Twitter user. Least likely to watch cable news. And the humblest person — by far. He will be, in short, the greatest role model of all time.
Michael Gerson, WaPo: Departing Trump officials leave a damning image. Creative cruelty is this president’s management style.
From a presidential administration’s appointments we learn how it views itself. From an administration’s departures we learn how it conducts itself. Honesty comes easier to those with little left to lose.
In this regard, the Trump administration offers much to analyze. The pace of disillusioned exits is rapid. And what the departing have chosen to emphasize reveals much about daily life in the executive branch.
In the case of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the complaint was an atmosphere toxic with cruelty. President Trump made a habit of undermining his chief diplomat in public. (On negotiations with North Korea, the president once tweeted: “Save your energy Rex. We’ll do what has to be done.”) Tillerson was fired via tweet — a first for the office once held by Thomas Jefferson. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly reportedly told White House staffers that Tillerson received the news of his impending dismissal while on the toilet.
“This can be a very mean-spirited town,” said Tillerson in his departure speech. He gave his farewell without mentioning the name of the man who appointed him. But the implication was clear enough. “Each of us get to choose the person we want to be, and the way we want to be treated, and the way we will treat others,” Tillerson concluded.
Jobs in the executive branch are hard enough without an added layer of stress caused by constant humiliation. But Trump emphasizes his own importance by diminishing those around him. So creative cruelty is essential to his management style. The result is fear, distrust and resentment — hardly a situation conducive to deliberation.
During his departure, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin made a similar point about civility. He says he was informed of his own firing just hours before a Trump tweet thanking him for his service was posted, and then the administration claimed he had resigned. “It should not be this hard to serve your country,” he complained in a New York Times op-ed.
But Shulkin also described an atmosphere not just of cruelty but also of attempted corruption. He wrote of a “brutal power struggle” within his department with “political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what’s best for veterans.” Their goal was “to put VA health care in the hands of the private sector.” And the reason for this, as Shulkin describes it, was not only ideological. “They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” he said. “That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”
To summarize: The departing head of VA has accused swaggering White House appointees of trying to betray the interests of veterans for the financial benefit of favored individuals and businesses. A serious charge. But in the Trump administration’s carnival of corruption, this barely rates as a sideshow.
The departure of Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, brought a different sort of indictment. In his final public remarks, he was careful to preserve his ties to the president. But the topic he chose was Russia — particularly Russian cyberoperations against the United States and other NATO countries. And his judgment was harsh: “We have failed to impose sufficient costs” for such actions. The result? “The Kremlin’s confidence is growing as its agents conduct their sustained campaign to undermine our confidence in ourselves and in one another.”
For a national security adviser to make this statement in an administration where the president has been equivocal, even exculpatory, in his language about Russia is the most serious critique of all. In McMaster’s view, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is engaging in a type of hybrid warfare that is “deliberately designed to achieve objectives while falling below the target state’s threshold for military response.” This has been enabled by some who “glamorize and apologize” for Russia’s actions, and by nations that “have looked the other way.”
In his farewell statement, McMaster — one of our country’s deepest thinkers on the nature of warfare — described a sustained attack to which the United States has not responded with sufficient seriousness. This could be interpreted only as an implicit criticism of a president who has brought no urgency to the task and has a history of apologizing for Russian actions. (“Well, you think our country is so innocent?”)
The composite image of the Trump administration left by these departing officials is damning — a picture of cruelty, attempted corruption and national weakness. Instead of hearing gratitude for the experience of a lifetime, we are getting distress signals.
Joe Conason: Don't Let Trump Betray Veterans
Whenever Donald Trump fires a member of his administration, the least likely reason is incompetence, corruption, abuse of authority or wasteful extravagance.
If those were causes for dismissal in the Trump administration, nearly his entire cabinet would have been replaced by now.
That tweet signaling the removal of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin — an Obama administration holdover widely regarded as one of the few able appointees in the cabinet — wasn't provoked by any such offense.
The real trouble with Shulkin, as he informed the country on his way out, was his determination to stand up against a scheme fronted by the billionaire Koch brothers to "privatize" the VA health system, a $200 billion public enterprise that currently serves the needs of nine million veterans.
Even worse, Shulkin achieved enough success in providing and improving care to win the approval of 70 percent of the nation's former service members.
If you ask veterans whether the VA should be privatized, the answer is overwhelmingly no. And if you survey the nation's many veterans' organizations, the response is unanimously negative as well, with the single exception of an outfit called "Concerned Veterans of America" — which is financed by the Koch brothers' political network.
Unfortunately for those who have served the country in uniform, the Koch network has contrived to place political operatives from "Concerned Veterans" in key positions at the VA. It was those operatives, dedicated to the Koch agenda, who helped to undermine and eventually remove Shulkin.
As for Trump, is anybody still surprised that his campaign pledge to provide the very best medical services for veterans was a fraud? By replacing Shulkin with Dr. Ronny Jackson, his personal physician, who lacks any experience or qualifications to run the VA, the president proved just how little he cares about this vital government program.
In effect, he sacrificed veterans to the whims of the Koch brothers.
Known as the country's biggest financiers of right-wing officials, organizations and think tanks, Charles and David Koch relentlessly promote their ideological and commercial interests (which generally coincide).
They're especially notorious for sponsoring politicians who will allow their continued destruction of the planet in pursuit of oil and coal profits. This is an understandable if despicable approach to politics.
But why are the Kochs so determined to dismantle the VA, one of the most popular and effective federal programs in history?
Perhaps they have a secret plan to profit from privatizing veterans' health care. Or perhaps their urge to destroy the VA is precisely because it has worked well.
They openly hate government, which stands in the way of complete corporate domination of democratic society, and that may be reason enough. Whatever their motives, privatization poses a severe threat to veterans and ought to be opposed by every patriotic American.
Historically, the VA has provided both excellent care, as it did when the Clinton administration advanced its technological capacities, and less excellent care, as it did in the turbulent wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
And it is true that some veterans — who live far from VA facilities or confront long delays in obtaining ordinary medical services — could benefit from a system like Medicare that allows them to use nearby private doctors and hospitals.
Yet over the decades, the VA has addressed the traumatic injuries, mental illness and substance abuse suffering inflicted by war with dedicated services that the private sector will never match.
That is why the VA Commission on Care, a bipartisan panel of top health care experts, issued a report in June 2016 that firmly rejected the privatization option.
That is also why privatization has met with tough skepticism among elected officials of both parties.
To disrupt or even destroy those essential services with an ill-conceived ideological notion of "reform" would be to harm millions of veterans irreparably. It is hard to imagine a worse betrayal of their sacrifice.
NYT Editorial Board: The True Damage of Trump’s ‘Fake News’
Many people, including many Republican lawmakers, dismiss President Trump’s attacks on The Washington Post, CNN and other news organizations as just one of those crazy — but ultimately harmless — things he does to blow off steam. They’re wrong.
Yes, Mr. Trump hasn’t been able to implement many of his worst proposals to undermine the press. Congress hasn’t tried to change the First Amendment or pass new libel laws, for example, and journalists — including at the “failing New York Times” — regularly unearth new scandals in the Trump administration. But the president’s rhetoric is clearly having an effect in the United States and especially around the world, where political leaders have seen it as a green light to crack down on the press. Malaysian lawmakers this week passed a law that would impose prison sentences of up to six years on people found to be spreading “fake news,” an ill-defined term that will put tremendous power in the hands of government officials to punish journalists and publishers. In India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed revoking the accreditation of journalists who traffic in “fake news” before scrapping the idea after journalists denounced it.
In recent days, Mr. Trump turned his guns on The Post, accusing it of trying to advance the business interests of its owner, Jeff Bezos, and the company he founded and runs, Amazon. Much has been made of the accusations the president has hurled at Amazon’s business practices, like its unwillingness for many years to collect state and local sales taxes. Some of these practices are indeed troubling. But don’t be distracted. Mr. Trump isn’t really distressed about the coffers of state and local governments, small retailers or whether the United States Postal Service suffers losses delivering Amazon packages. He is trying to undermine the credibility of The Post because it is holding his administration to account.
Such attacks on the integrity of news organizations confuse the public about what’s true. Many Republican voters have long been skeptical of the mainstream news media, but their trust in it has fallen sharply since 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. And a study by two Yale professors found that Republicans were much more likely to trust hyperpartisan media outlets and news sites that peddle outright falsehoods than are Democrats. That phenomenon has undoubtedly bolstered by Mr. Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and his endorsements of Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, which has compelled news anchors at its local TV stations to read outrageous statements questioning the credibility of other news organizations.
“Trump seems to be succeeding just through the force of his daily verbal assaults in shaking trust in the press and in other institutions that are crucial to our democracy,” says Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
When the president calls every piece of information he does not like “fake news,” he also encourages politicians in other countries who are not constrained by constitutional free speech protections or independent judiciaries to more aggressively squelch the press. They know that there will be little international condemnation of their actions because one of the most important standard bearers for a free press — the American government — is led by a man trying to discredit the free press.
Malaysia’s democracy is clearly flawed — the same coalition has ruled it since it became independent in 1957, and it has jailed opposition leaders on trumped-up charges — but it is not in the same league as countries like China and Russia, where freedom of speech is extremely circumscribed. By criminalizing “fake news,” it is heading in that direction. Indian democracy is much hardier, but journalists and free speech advocates are worried about the government’s hostility toward an independent press and fear it will become even more aggressive as next year’s parliamentary elections draw closer.
This is not a problem just in these countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented an uptick in attacks on the press in Egypt, Myanmar, Poland, Turkey and other countries. Last year, 21 journalists were imprisoned for reporting false news, twice as many as the year before, according to the committee.
Mr. Trump is unlikely to change his ways, and his most loyal supporters will support him no matter what he does. It is up to everybody else, Republicans and Democrats alike, to stand up and speak out against his destructive attacks on the press and the truth.
Paul Krugman, NYT: What's the Matter With Trumpland?
These days almost everyone has the (justified) sense that America is coming apart at the seams. But this isn’t a new story, or just about politics. Things have been falling apart on multiple fronts since the 1970s: Political polarization has marched side by side with economic polarization, as income inequality has soared.
And both political and economic polarization have a strong geographic dimension. On the economic side, some parts of America, mainly big coastal cities, have been getting much richer, but other parts have been left behind. On the political side, the thriving regions by and large voted for Hillary Clinton, while the lagging regions voted for Donald Trump.
I’m not saying that everything is great in coastal cities: Many people remain economically stranded even within metropolitan areas that look successful in the aggregate. And soaring housing costs, thanks in large part to Nimbyism, are a real and growing problem. Still, regional economic divergence is real and correlates closely, though not perfectly, with political divergence.
But what’s behind this divergence? What’s the matter with Trumpland?
Regional disparities aren’t a new phenomenon in America. Indeed, before World War II the world’s richest, most productive nation was also a nation with millions of dirt-poor farmers, many of whom didn’t even have electricity or indoor plumbing. But until the 1970s those disparities were rapidly narrowing.
Take, for example, the case of Mississippi, America’s poorest state. In the 1930s, per-capita income in Mississippi was only 30 percent as high as per-capita income in Massachusetts. By the late 1970s, however, that figure was almost 70 percent — and most people probably expected this process of convergence to continue.
But the process went into reverse instead: These days, Mississippi is back down to only about 55 percent of Massachusetts income. To put this in international perspective, Mississippi now is about as poor relative to the coastal states as Sicily is relative to northern Italy.
Mississippi isn’t an isolated case. As a new paper by Austin, Glaeser and Summers documents, regional convergence in per-capita incomes has stopped dead. And the relative economic decline of lagging regions has been accompanied by growing social problems: a rising share of prime-aged men not working, rising mortality, high levels of opioid consumption.
An aside: One implication of these developments is that William Julius Wilson was right. Wilson famously argued that the social ills of the nonwhite inner-city poor had their origin not in some mysterious flaws of African-American culture but in economic factors — specifically, the disappearance of good blue-collar jobs. Sure enough, when rural whites faced a similar loss of economic opportunity, they experienced a similar social unraveling.
So what is the matter with Trumpland?
For the most part I’m in agreement with Berkeley’s Enrico Moretti, whose 2012 book, “The New Geography of Jobs,” is must reading for anyone trying to understand the state of America. Moretti argues that structural changes in the economy have favored industries that employ highly educated workers — and that these industries do best in locations where there are already a lot of these workers. As a result, these regions are experiencing a virtuous circle of growth: Their knowledge-intensive industries prosper, drawing in even more educated workers, which reinforces their advantage.
And at the same time, regions that started with a poorly educated work force are in a downward spiral, both because they’re stuck with the wrong industries and because they’re experiencing what amounts to a brain drain.
While these structural factors are surely the main story, however, I think we have to acknowledge the role of self-destructive politics.
That new Austin et al. paper makes the case for a national policy of aiding lagging regions. But we already have programs that would aid these regions — but which they won’t accept. Many of the states that have refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot the great bulk of the bill — and would create jobs in the process — are also among America’s poorest.
Or consider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma — both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind — have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems. External forces have put them in a hole, but they’re digging it deeper.
And when it comes to national politics, let’s face it: Trumpland is in effect voting for its own impoverishment. New Deal programs and public investment played a significant role in the great postwar convergence; conservative efforts to downsize government will hurt people all across America, but it will disproportionately hurt the very regions that put the G.O.P. in power.
The truth is that doing something about America’s growing regional divide would be hard even with smart policies. The divide will only get worse under the policies we’re actually likely to get.
Eugene Robinson, WaPo: Trump is hoping you're too stupid to notice
You can tell what President Trump is afraid of by what he chooses to lie about. That means he must be petrified of losing support over his failure to build a single mile of the “big, beautiful” border wall he promised.
Trump is scared of a lot of things — special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, honest reporting by the news media, adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and, reportedly, sharks. But nothing seems to make him quake and tremble more than the fear that his core base will realize all his tough-guy huffing and puffing about Latino immigration was a bunch of hot air.
On Easter morning, while many of the president’s most loyal supporters were celebrating the Resurrection, Trump was dishonestly tweeting in a frantic attempt to look strong and uncompromising. His first tweet ended with this bleat: “ ‘Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!”
That requires some translation. Trump was apparently referring to a Fox News story — I know, you’re shocked — about a “caravan” of 1,200 would-be immigrants who say they are coming north through Mexico to enter the United States; they were last seen traveling on foot 900 miles south of the border, meaning the “threat” is less than imminent. The reference to the nuclear option is yet another call for the Senate to eliminate its filibuster rule, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has no intention of doing. And finally, Trump appeared to rule out any agreement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which he canceled — allowing undocumented immigrants brought here as children to stay.
The president followed up with two more tweets, one blasting Mexico and threatening to “stop” the North American Free Trade Agreement, the other assailing imaginary “big flows of people” who are “trying to take advantage of DACA.”
First thing Monday morning, Trump was at it again. A 7:02 a.m. tweet blamed Mexico for allowing “these large ‘Caravans’ of people” to enter Mexico, which made no sense. A second attacked Congress and claimed that “our country is being stolen!” And the third must be quoted in its entirety:
“DACA is dead because the Democrats didn’t care or act, and now everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon . . . No longer works. Must build Wall and secure our borders with proper Border legislation. Democrats want No Borders, hence drugs and crime!”
Leaving aside Trump’s rather Germanic approach to capitalization, that tweet is an occasion to paraphrase Mary McCarthy’s famous quip about Lillian Hellman: Virtually every word is a lie, including “and” and “the.” Democrats repeatedly offered to deal on DACA, as did Trump. No newcomers could possibly “get onto the DACA bandwagon,” because only immigrants who were brought here before 2007 were eligible. And immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens.
Why such a frenzy of untruth? Because Trump apparently sees anger building among his most fervent supporters over his utter failure to deliver on what they understood as his central campaign promise: to halt or reverse the flow of Latino immigration and the “browning” of America.
That’s what this is really about. On the emotional level, Trump appealed to white Anglo chauvinism. He skillfully stoked the anger and resentment of those who are annoyed when they phone the electric company to straighten out a bill and are told to press 1 for English, press 2 for Spanish. When he writes things like “our country is being stolen,” it’s crystal-clear who’s supposed to be stealing it.
What I didn’t realize during the campaign was that Trump’s base realized he could never fulfill his absurd pledge to deport all of the estimated 11 million people who are here without papers. But his supporters did expect him to do something to stem what they see as an invasion — something concrete and unambiguous. Like the promised wall.
But a man with his name emblazoned on skyscrapers and golf courses around the globe, a man who fancies himself a master builder, has been unable to even begin construction of a new border wall. And some of the most vocal anti-immigration commentators — with influence among Trump’s base — have been getting restless.
I don’t know how to break this to you, folks, but Trump’s wall promise was no more serious than anything else that comes out of his mouth. His antipathy toward Latinos and non-whites is genuine, I trust, but his ability to follow through is pure counterfeit. With all of his heart, he hopes you’re too stupid to notice.
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50 years ago I was privileged to meet MLK and Coretta at a Press Club meet and greet and chat informally over lunch. My honor and privilege.