April 22, 2018 --
Another busy week. Let’s hear it from some of the columnists I most respect.
Gail Collins & Bret Stephens, NYT: When a Politician and a Lawman Try to Play the Hero, the Lawman Usually Wins
Bret Stephens: Gail, I know we need to discuss James Comey’s new book and President Trump’s Twitter neuralgia about it, but I wanted to get your thoughts about the attack in Syria in response to the gas attacks — the suspected gas attacks, I should say — near Damascus.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as a top adviser in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, said “It will not stop the war” and “is illegal under international law.” Yet she praised it because “it at least draws a line somewhere and says enough.” What do you think?
Gail Collins: There had to be a response, and it had to be one that wouldn’t put Syrian civilians in the line of fire. In a perfect world we’d have been in serious negotiations to try to end the violence before the strike occurred. In a perfect world there wouldn’t have been that presidential chest-thumping. In a perfect world we wouldn’t, for God’s sake, be calling it “Mission Accomplished.”
So I guess I think that given the guy we’ve got in the White House, it was about the best we could have hoped for. How about you?
Bret: I’m surprised to find myself writing this, but I think the strike was a waste of perfectly good cruise missiles. We did nearly the exact same thing last year, and it did nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad from slaughtering his own people and using chemical weapons on them. If we really believe, as I do, that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, then we can’t allow the guy who used them to come away from the strike unscathed and — given that he’s immediately renewed his offensive in the area — emboldened.
The strike really was classic Trump: A show of force mainly for the sake of show, without any strategy behind it. Iran has entrenched itself in Syria alongside Russia, while Israel is quietly preparing for war on its northern front. The administration looks likely to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal next month, but little thought seems to have been given to what comes after. In all, just another reminder that the Trump disaster is global.
Gail: We’ve been looking for a good argument for so long I really wish I could pitch into this one. But my bottom line is that we’d better avoid any serious conflicts as long as Trump is commander in chief. As to the Iran deal, the whole idea of pulling out of it is so traumatizing that I can’t think of any response except crawling under the bed and assuming a fetal position.
Now, let’s be cowards and talk about domestic issues. Can we start with Paul Ryan? You wrote a wonderful column about what a weenie he’s being by bailing out at this crucial moment. But I think we still disagree about his overall career. I see him as a guy who pretended to be all about balanced budgets but was really always just going for the tax cuts and screw the deficit. Same thing with Bush. Same thing with Reagan. Seems to be a pattern.
Bret: I think your complaint is a tad unfair. If Republicans like Ryan had filibuster-proof control of the Senate, they would likely pass entitlement reform and gleefully take an ax to domestic spending to keep the budget balanced. There aren’t any honest deficit hawks anywhere in American politics — they just want to slash the other guy’s priorities to fund their own. Aren’t most Democrats that way, too? I mean, would you let a deficit stand in the way of Medicare-for-all?
That said, “weenie,” c’est le mot juste. Saturday’s column was about Ryan, but it could just as easily have been about the larger cast of weenies known as the
G.O.P., who capitulated to Trumpism faster than you say Vichyssoise. In the long term, it will cost the G.O.P. dearly, especially among younger voters who will remember who stood on the wrong side of history.
Gail: Love the way you do all that French stuff while all I’ve got is “weenie.” Let’s just go one more round on the deficit stuff and then we can collapse into Trump-Comey.
I agree that if Ryan had control of … the world … he would pass a balanced budget with low taxes and slashed entitlements. But the reason he can’t do that isn’t just the Democrats. It’s all his own party members, who are well aware their constituents would go bonkers if they tried to cut Social Security or Medicare. Pretending that’s going to happen is just faking.
Bret: But, but … O.K., you’re right. Regarding the awfulness of the current Republican Party, it isn’t just deep; it’s bottomless. Which is why I’m in sympathy with the deficit non-hawks, people who understand that debt isn’t the worst thing if you’re spending money on the right things, and if your economy is growing smartly.
It would probably be good for our politics in general if we just owned up to the fact that we aren’t going to get our fiscal virginity back and have a real argument about spending priorities rather than a fake one about budgetary virtue. We’re not going to pay down the debt in our lifetimes. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a thriving economy to make sure we’re able to finance it.
Gail: Well, I’m sorry to give up such a fruitful area of argument, but our plan requires we move on.
Bret: What about Comey?
Gail: No question that the president tried to bully him into quashing the whole Russia issue. I really do think we’re talking about obstruction of justice.
So that’s my pro-Comey thought. On the other hand, I came of age during the J. Edgar Hoover period, when the idea of a we-rule-the-world F.B.I. was very scary. And Comey is a self-centric dude who is not the ideal person to run an agency that has so much power.
My third thought is that whenever I mull the Clinton-Comey story, I return to the fact that Anthony Weiner changed the course of American history. Yipes.
Bret: Dammit, Gail. We’re agreeing again.
I was never a Comey fan: I wrote a long editorial for The Wall Street Journal opposing his nomination as F.B.I. director back when Barack Obama appointed him in 2013. Comey’s behavior in 2016 was a long series of legal misjudgments and political blunders that wound up costing Hillary Clinton the election.
Gail: Yeah, if we’d had a Comey-free election, right now you and I would be having good old-fashioned fights about President Clinton’s new health care expansion.
Bret: Right, while I would be praising her decision to oust Assad and target Russian bases.
That said, I fear that Comey is damaging himself — and the credible case he makes against the president — by putting his obvious distaste for Trump into the service of selling his book. It allows Trump and his defenders to paint Comey as disgruntled and self-serving. If Trump is a pig, Comey’s a prig. I wonder who comes out looking better to most Americans in that particular contest.
Gail: When there’s a choice about whether a politician or a lawman is going to get to play the hero, lawman usually wins. I suspect Comey will go down in history as the hero who stood up to a crazy president. Although in a fairer world he’d also be remembered as the guy whose overdramatic press conference got us said president in the first place.
Bret: Agreed again. It’s a drama with few heroes but plenty of knaves and opportunists.
Gail: That’s for sure. We’ll talk again soon, Bret. In the meantime — I don’t normally say this, but I wouldn’t mind a little less news.
Maureen Dowd, NYT: Barbara Bush: Fake Pearls, Real Heart
WASHINGTON — Barbara Bush was an expert at throwing shade, even before the term existed.
When Congressman Dan Rostenkowski gave the first lady a shampoo for white hair made in his Illinois district, she tried it on her dog Millie.
“When I shampooed her with it, she became a brown and slightly yellow-haired dog,” she wrote in her memoir. “At this writing, Danny is under fire, accused of financial wrongdoing. We certainly wish him well.”
She took her revenge, chilled, on Nancy Reagan, who never invited the Bushes to the White House residence for dinner in the eight years H.W. was vice president and who instructed Mrs. Bush to stay away from wearing “Nancy red” while she was the second lady. Writing about Nancy and Raisa Gorbachev competing at a wives’ lunch, Mrs. Bush said she wasn’t sure of Raisa’s age: “I don’t know how old, but I think the paper said 53 or 55. That’s funny, for we really don’t know if Nancy Reagan is 65 or 67 and she won’t tell.”
She could be caustic, practicing radical candor. She told reporters at Kennebunkport once when I was there that she did not want W. to run for governor of Texas while his father was president. But when he dived into politics, she turned over one of the most valuable documents in fund-raising history: the Bush family Christmas card list.
Even before the reality TV star her husband labeled an “ass” got in the race, Mrs. Bush nailed the anti-elitist mood. In 2013, she acknowledged, in essence, that W. had worn out the family’s welcome. (The senior Bushes were privately distraught that W. let Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the neocons hijack his presidency.)
“There are other people out there that are very qualified,” she said, “and we’ve had enough Bushes.”
But when Jeb jumped in anyhow, she dutifully went on the trail at 90 to try to buoy his lame effort — even though the “ass” tweeted that Jeb “desperately needed mommy to help him.”
She was the ungainly, insecure daughter of an austere, beautiful mother who put her down. From the time she and Poppy met, when she was 16 and he was 17, she loved him wildly. She went into a depression when he was “head spook,” as he called it, at the C.I.A. and she was less involved in his world.
Once at Kennebunkport, when President Bush told reporters that he didn’t want to play golf with his wife because her game “stunk,” I could see her wince. She said she was happy when he was no longer president, surrounded by a coterie of male advisers, because “I am the only one who will play at 6 a.m. with 10 minutes’ notice!”
She never lost the torch. Once when we were at Kennebunkport, my fit friend Rita Beamish, the White House reporter for the A.P., taught the president the proper way to do situps. When word got back to Bar, she was not amused.
Certainly, Poppy cherished his Silver Fox. He once wrote me a long parody of my columns about W. as a Boy King, in which he cast himself as “the Old King” and Bar as the “straight-talking Queen” and “Queen Barbara, his own bride of 56 years.”
Her hair had turned prematurely white when her 3-year-old daughter Robin died of leukemia, and she stopped coloring it in 1970, when a rinse called Fabulous Fawn began dripping in the heat, turning her neck brown. During her husband’s 1980 run for the White House, her sister-in-law told her the family was asking, “What are we going to do about Bar?”
“They discussed how to make me look snappier — color my hair, change my style of dressing, and, I suspect, get me to lose some weight,” she wrote in her memoir. “I know it was meant to be helpful, but I wept quietly alone until George told me that was absolutely crazy.”
In a moment that still makes me cringe, the comedian Sinbad turned to Mrs. Bush on the dais at a White House Correspondents Dinner and said she looked like a grandmother, compared with her boyish husband.
She didn’t flinch. The Silver Fox outfoxed them all by creating an appealing, authentic persona, dubbed “Greenwich granite” by Peggy Noonan. The patrician in the fake pearls wore $29 shoes that pinched at her husband’s inauguration. She made a point, after the deafening silence of the Reagan years on AIDS, to go hug babies with AIDS.
After the Bushes left the White House, I occasionally sent books to the champion of literacy. Some she loved — “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” — and some she wasn’t so sure about.
“A very belated thank you for the strangest book I have ever read, M Train,” she wrote in 2016 on a notecard engraved with W.’s paintings of her two dogs. “Interesting lady is Patti Smith!”
She added, “This is a strange year and very little surprises me anymore!”
Mrs. Bush was always “lovely” to me, to use one of her favorite words. I wrote a piece in The Times about my mom when she died in 2005. I got an email from Mrs. Bush, who did not have such a nurturing mother: “Maureen, we loved the words about your lovely mother. She was certainly not only fine, but a great beauty. You should be comforted that you look exactly like her and will when you are 100. Lucky girl to have had her. Sincerely, Barbara Bush.”
Mrs. Bush had a bourbon just before she died. So did my mom, with a morphine chaser.
Bar knew 10 ways to throw shade, but she knew 100 ways to shine light.
Paul Krugman, NYT: Earth, Wind and Liars
Peter Thiel, Facebook investor and Donald Trump supporter, is by all accounts a terrible person. He did, however, come up with one classic line about the disappointments of modern technology: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” O.K., now it’s 280, but who’s counting?
The point of his quip was that while we’ve found ever more clever ways of pushing around bits of information, we are still living in a material world — and our command of that material world has advanced much less than most people expected a few decades ago. Where are the technologies transforming the way we deal with physical reality?
Well, there is one area of physical technology, renewable energy, in which we really are seeing that kind of progress — progress that can both change the world and save it. Unfortunately, the people Thiel supports are trying to stop that progress from happening.
Not that long ago, calls for a move to wind and solar power were widely perceived as impractical if not hippie-dippy silly. Some of that contempt lingers; my sense is that many politicians and some businesspeople still think of renewable energy as marginal, still imagine that real men burn stuff and serious people focus on good old-fashioned fossil fuels.
But the truth is nearly the opposite, certainly when it comes to electricity generation. Believers in the primacy of fossil fuels, coal in particular, are now technological dead-enders; they, not foolish leftists, are our modern Luddites. Unfortunately, they can still do a lot of damage.
About the technology: As recently as 2010, it still consistently cost more to generate electricity from sun and wind than from fossil fuels. But that gap has already been eliminated, and this is just the beginning. Widespread use of renewable energy is still a new thing, which means that even without major technological breakthroughs we can expect to see big further cost reductions as industries move “down the learning curve” — that is, find better and cheaper ways to operate as they accumulate experience.
Recently David Roberts at Vox.com offered a very good example: wind turbines. Windmills have been around for more than a thousand years, and they’ve been used to generate electricity since the late 19th century. But making turbines really efficient requires making them very big and tall — tall enough to exploit the faster, steadier winds that blow at higher altitudes.
And that’s what businesses are learning to do, via a series of incremental improvements — better design, better materials, better locations (offshore is where it’s at). So what we’ll be seeing in a few years will be 850-foot turbines that totally outcompete fossil fuels on cost.
To paraphrase the science-fiction writer William Gibson, the renewable energy future is already pretty much here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.
True, there are issues of intermittency remaining — the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine — although batteries and other energy storage technologies are also making rapid progress. There are also some energy uses, especially transportation, where fossil fuels retain a significant advantage in cost and convenience. And exactly how we’re going to have carbon-neutral air travel is still, well, up in the air.
But there is no longer any reason to believe that it would be hard to drastically “decarbonize” the economy. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that doing so would impose any significant economic cost. The realistic debate is about how hard it will be to get from 80 to 100 percent decarbonization.
For now, however, the problem isn’t technology — it’s politics.
The fossil fuel sector may represent a technological dead end, but it still has a lot of money and power. Lately it has been putting almost all of that money and power behind Republicans. For example, in the 2016 election cycle the coal mining industry gave 97 percent (!) of its contributions to G.O.P. candidates.
What the industry got in return for that money wasn’t just a president who talks nonsense about bringing back coal jobs and an administration that rejects the science of climate change. It got an Environmental Protection Agency head who’s trying to suppress evidence on the damage pollution causes, and a secretary of energy who tried, unsuccessfully so far, to force natural gas and renewables to subsidize coal and nuclear plants.
In the long run, these tactics probably won’t stop the transition to renewable energy, and even the villains of this story probably realize that. Their goal is, instead, to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments.
Unfortunately, this really is a case of “in the long run we are all dead.” Every year that we delay, the clean-energy transition will sicken or kill thousands while increasing the risk of climate catastrophe.
The point is that Trump and company aren’t just trying to move us backward on social issues; they’re also trying to block technological progress. And the price of their obstructionism will be high.
E.J. Dionne Jr., WaPo: Trump can’t steer a steady course. Maybe Nikki Haley should jump ship.
“With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
These eight words from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will go down as among the most powerful indictments of the rancid governing culture President Trump has fostered. They may also shed light on one of the great mysteries of the moment: Why is it that Trump regularly backs off when it comes to confronting Vladimir Putin and Russia?
The matter-of-factness of Haley’s comment made it all the more acidic. She was pushing back against efforts by White House staffers to dismiss and demean her after she had declared, firmly and unequivocally, that the United States intended to impose fresh sanctions on Russia in response to the apparent use of chemical weapons by the regime of Moscow’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad.
“You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” she said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Haley was very specific. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, she asserted, “will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already, and they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.”
Her comments seemed fully consistent with the goal of the missile attacks on Syrian facilities involved in chemical warfare that Trump proudly touted as a signal of his toughness and resolve. There were no indications Haley was freelancing, and she was not initially contradicted by the White House.
But one man watching her was very unhappy about what he saw. It turned out that Trump, who has said over and over that he longs for better relations with Putin, either changed his mind on new sanctions or was not privy to his own administration’s policy.
On Monday, the president put out word that there would be no new sanctions for now. This sent the cover-story specialists he employs at the White House scurrying to undercut Haley. Most of them did their hatchet work anonymously. One of them said condescendingly that Haley had made “an error that needs to be mopped up.”
Perhaps because he is not yet accustomed to this White House’s stab-in-the-back culture, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s chief economic adviser, jabbed in the front and on the record, telling CNN that Haley “got ahead of the curve.” For good measure, he said that “there might have been some momentary confusion.”
This is what brought Haley to insist that her own confusion was not the problem. She was simultaneously rebuking the Trumpian modus operandi and, as The Post’s Aaron Blake pointed out, sending a substantive message: that “Trump and/or the White House did change their minds — that their increasingly tough posture on Russia has at least momentarily been arrested.”
Trump’s repeated flinching on Russian policy feeds suspicions as to why the Kremlin worked to get him elected, which we know they did, and whether Russia’s intelligence services have information to use against him, which has not yet been established.
There is strange justice in the fact that Trump’s behavior played straight into former FBI director James B. Comey’s blanket-the-media book tour. Consider this statement by Comey to USA Today: “There’s a non-zero possibility that the Russians have some, some sway over him that is rooted in his personal experience, and I don’t know whether that’s the business about the activity in a Moscow hotel room or finances or something else.”
Until “non-zero” becomes zero — or 100 percent — there is an obligation on the part of the media and government investigators to figure out what in the world is going on here.
Kudlow, by the way, violated another Trump norm. In a never-apologize world, he issued a gracious apology. “She was certainly not confused,” Kudlow said in a statement to the New York Times. “I was wrong to say that — totally wrong.” You wonder what Trump made of his act of contrition.
You also wonder what lesson Haley will take from joining the ranks of Trump servants who have been undercut from the top. Because her job involves being one of the leading articulators of U.S. policy to the world, the president has now rendered her assignment meaningless, impossible or perhaps both.
And with those busy and nameless White House chatterers leaking word that Trump is uneasy with her ambition — God forbid anyone in this “I alone can fix it” government should think about advancing her own career — her fate may not be entirely in her own hands.
Haley would be better off leaving this listing ship on her own terms even as the rest of us ponder why its captain seems incapable of steering a steady course.
Gail Collins, NYT: Our Gold-Leaf Presidency
Let’s talk for a minute about Mar-a-Lago.
Donald Trump was there this week, hosting a get-together with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Important stuff to be discussed — North Korea, trade. The two men held a brief press conference on Tuesday, at which the president revealed:
“Many of the world’s great leaders request to come to Mar-a-Lago and Palm Beach. They like it; I like it. We’re comfortable. We have great relationships. As you remember we were here and President Xi of China was here. And when we do it — it was originally built as the Southern White House. It was called the Southern White House. It was given to the United States and then Jimmy Carter decided it was too expensive for the United States. So they, fortunately for me, gave it back and I bought it. Who would have thought? It was a circuitous route. But now it is, indeed, the Southern White House. And again, many, many people want to be here. Many of the leaders want to be here. They request specifically.”
I believe I speak for many Americans when I respond: Huh?
People, which part of this makes you most unnerved? The fact that the president doesn’t make any sense when he talks or the fact that he devoted a large part of a press conference with the head of one of our most important allies to promoting his resort?
Mar-a-Lago, in case you’re really interested, was owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, a woman who had to go through life being referred to as the “cereal heiress.” When she died in 1973, she donated it to the federal government for the presidents’ use. However, nobody seemed to think the taxpayers should be stuck with a $1 million annual maintenance bill. It was more or less abandoned until President Carter gave the place back to Post’s heirs, who sold it to Trump.
Which is of course a great deal for the nation, being off the hook for that maintenance tab. All we’ve had to pay so far is $45 million to $55 million to fly Trump back and forth and post guards around the beach.
Some observers might have been surprised that the president would want to talk so long and lavishly about his $200,000-per-member chateau at a theoretically important meeting about foreign policy. These are people who’ve forgotten that last year, he addressed the South Korean Parliament about the threat from Pyongyang and managed to work in a plug for his golf club in New Jersey.
Everybody knows Trump mixes personal business with his job running the country. Maybe it wouldn’t be so unnerving if he wasn’t so messy. We’ve had previous presidents with corrupt political associates, presidents sloshing around in sex scandals and presidents who appeared to have no clue of how to turn on the lights in the White House, let alone run a government. But we’ve never had one who managed to hit all three markers, while simultaneously using the nation’s highest office to further his private asset accumulation.
The whole property-promoting thing is new. Our recent Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, barely had houses of their own when they were elected, let alone a faux castle with gold ceilings and hordes of chandeliers that give the overall impression of a cathedral on psychedelic drugs.
George W. Bush did invite people like Vladimir Putin and assorted prime ministers to his ranch in Texas, but that was just a private home. And when Bush did let reporters into Crawford, he tended to show off its attractions by clearing brush in 100-degree temperatures.
But now we’ve got a chief executive with a whole new mind-set about making public service pay, and his behavior is leaking down through the government. His aides may not all be planning to become billionaires in office, but a lot of them are living as if they already were.
Pop Quiz: When Trump said that when it came to picking a cabinet, “not all of my choices were good,” do you think he was referring to:
A) The guy who spent $10,200 to lease a customized S.U.V. with bullet-resistant seat covers.
B) The guy who bought the $43,000 super-secure phone booth for his office.
C) The guy who says he needs to fly first class because it’s too dangerous to be in coach.
Surprise! All three of these people are E.P.A. head Scott Pruitt, and so far he does not appear to be one of the people the president thinks was a bad choice.
But about Mar-a-Lago: The State Department got in trouble last year for posting a blog extolling the resort’s glories. A couple of American embassies tried the same thing — and it has to mean something that one of them was in Albania.
Despite the president’s suggestion that heads of state are lining up begging to be invited, Abe is the only one who’s actually spent a night at Mar-a-Lago. The prime minister really did seem happy, playing golf and smiling politely while Trump raged about trade deficits. Why not? Abe may have his own political scandals at home, but none of them involve a payoff to a porn star or Sean Hannity.
Good times for everybody. Cue the chandeliers.
Eugene Robinson, WaPo: Trump is smashingly successful — at sowing utter confusion
The Trump administration is succeeding wildly at one thing: sowing utter confusion about its foreign policy.
Perhaps “foreign policy” is the wrong term. “International lurchings” might be more apt. Allies and adversaries alike are having to learn which pronouncements to take seriously, which to ignore and which are likely to be countermanded by presidential tweet.
President Trump announces he has accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whose nuclear arms and ballistic missiles have provoked a dangerous crisis. No groundwork for such a meeting has been laid, so the president dispatches an envoy on a secret mission to Pyongyang — not a diplomat but CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump couldn’t send his secretary of state because, at the moment, he doesn’t have one. Pompeo is his nominee for the job.
On Wednesday, the president says he really, truly intends to go through with the meeting — unless it seems the encounter will not be productive, in which case he won’t meet with Kim after all. If there is a meeting, but it doesn’t seem sufficiently “fruitful,” Trump says, “I will respectfully leave the meeting, and we’ll continue what we’re doing or whatever it is that we’ll continue, but something will happen.”
Got that? “Something will happen.” The possible outcomes range from hurt feelings to nuclear war.
On another front, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley went on television Sunday to deliver what sounded like a clear message: There will be new sanctions against Russia.
That made sense. The Russians interfered with our election, according to intelligence officials. Moscow continues to support and defend the Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of recently using chemical weapons again against civilians. And our British allies accuse the Russians of using a powerful nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian intelligence officer living in England.
So Haley’s announcement of new sanctions was appropriate. But there won’t be any. That news came from, of all people, Trump’s new chief economic adviser, former television pundit Larry Kudlow. Pressed into duty on the foreign-affairs front, Kudlow told reporters that Haley “got ahead of the curve” and that “there might have been some momentary confusion.”
Haley was not amused. Her retort was memorable: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
The rest of us do, though. Asked Wednesday to clarify the policy, Trump went on a rant about how no one has ever been as tough on Russia as he has — a laughable claim — and then waxed poetic (for Trump) about how nice it would be if the United States and Russia could just be friends.
The question was finally settled when Russian officials said they have been assured by the administration that there will be no new sanctions. If the Russkies are the most reliable source of information, maybe we should ask them who’ll win the 2020 election.
If the aim of foreign policy were to keep everybody guessing, Trump would be a smashing success. But that is no proper goal for the leader of the free world. Rhetorically, at least, the United States used to stand for freedom, democracy and human rights throughout the world. Now, apparently, we have an administration that sees foreign relations as a zero-sum game in which others must lose so that we may win.
But the Trump administration doesn’t even seem capable of deciding what winning looks like. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. As critics predicted, China took advantage of that decision to launch a major initiative to dominate trade in Asia. Last week, Trump reportedly ordered officials to look into rejoining the TPP. This week, the White House said no, we’re staying out.
Trump sent 2,000 U.S. troops into Syria to help drive out the Islamic State — despite his campaign pledge not to get involved in such wars — and had considerable success. But recently, according to widespread reports, he has been demanding an immediate withdrawal, which military officials say would leave behind a chaotic, blood-soaked breeding ground for terrorism. Who knows what the president will ultimately decide?
The Trump administration sees no reason to criticize authoritarian leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and, of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia. By contrast, the president is chilly toward staunch allies who do not go out of their way to flatter him, such as Angela Merkel of Germany.
To brief Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his meeting this week with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, I’d have told him one thing: Whatever you do, don’t beat him at golf.
Paul Krugman, NYT: Scam I Amn’t: Voters and the Tax Cut
I don’t know what will happen in the midterm elections. But if Republicans pull it out – that is, if they lose the popular vote by a small enough margin that gerrymandering and the geographic concentration of nonwhite voters frustrate the public’s will – it will be the result of tribalism. It won’t be because the G.O.P. won voters over with a tax cut.
That’s not what they expected. The people who rammed through a massive tax cut without hearings or analysis thought they could sell it to voters as free money for everyone; never mind the big bucks for corporations and the wealthy, look at the extra cash we’re putting in your pocket.
And history suggested that they might be right: the Bush tax cuts, like the TCJA, offered big breaks to the wealthy but only what amounted to loss leaders for the middle class. Yet as Larry Bartels famously documented in his paper “Homer gets a tax cut,” most people focused on their direct gains, and were unmoved by or unaware of the indirect implications of bigger deficits for government programs they depended on. As a result, the Bush tax cuts were popular – not hugely popular, but more people approved than disapproved, and they were probably a net electoral plus.
But not this time. Polling suggests that only a minority – and probably a declining minority — of the public considers the Trump tax cut a good idea. Most people don’t see any benefits from the tax cut in their paychecks. And Republicans have pretty much given up campaigningon the tax cut.
Voters are, of course, right to have negative views about TCJA. It’s a mess of a bill; it will do little for economic growth, while increased deficits will create pressure to cut social insurance programs that affect many more people than the relative handful of wealthy stockholders who will win big. But voters should have been negative about the Bush tax cut too. Why do voters seem so much more woke? Why is this time different?
One possible answer might be that Trump is doing even less for ordinary voters than Bush. But I don’t think the numbers support that argument. The initial effect of the tax cuts in TCJA will be to raise income for the middle quintile by 1.4 percent; for EGGTRA, the first Bush tax cut, that number was 2.2 percent, but that was an overall bigger tax cut relative to the economy. Distributionally, the two tax cuts were broadly similar – as I said, big stuff for the rich, plus what amount to loss leaders for the middle class.
Another answer might be that the Bush tax cut was pushed through in a very different fiscal environment. Readers of a certain age may recall that when Bush ran in 2000, the U.S. actually had a budget surplus – which he claimed simply to be giving back to voters. But during the Obama years voters were subjected to constant scare talk about deficits and debt – some from centrist scolds, some from the very Republicans who rammed through their tax cut. This may have made voters more aware of the downside to big tax cuts for the rich, even if they got a bit themselves.
Finally, many people – rightly – don’t trust anything associated with Trump. Now, Bush officials were systematically deceptive in everything they said about tax policy (and much else); but Bush didn’t tweet out four or five blatant lies every day, and it took both the Iraq debacle and Katrina to finally wake up voters and the media to the Bush administration’s relatively subtle although deep dishonesty.
Anyway, whatever the reason, the tax cut is looking like the political loser it deserves to be. Sometimes justice prevails.
Joe Scarborough, WaPo: It’s becoming clear that Trump won’t run in 2020
It has been nearly three years since Donald Trump descended his faux-gold escalator to announce an improbable run for president, and Republican politicians seem just as baffled by the reality TV star’s future as they were the day he first launched this publicity stunt gone wildly wrong.
It is true that GOP leaders stand silent as President Trump trashes the rule of law, attacks federal judges and declares America’s free press the “enemy of the people.” These lap dogs even remain muzzled as younger Americans are chained to a future of crippling debt. And they shame the memory of the first Republican president — who gave his life ending slavery — by marching alongside a bumbling bigot who labels Hispanics “breeders” and “rapists,” seeks to bar tens of millions of Muslims from entering the country, and defends white supremacy in the ugly aftermath of Charlottesville.
And yet these same morally enfeebled enablers have become muted when asked whether they’ll support their fearless leader’s reelection bid.
“Look, I’m focused on opioids,” muttered Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, suggesting that a U.S. senator is not mentally adept enough to fight a drug epidemic while also figuring out whether he backs a president in his own party. Alexander is not the only GOP senator to offer up tortured answers to this simple question.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.) refused to answer, explaining that he had not given the question much thought because things could change in the time before the 2020 campaign revs up.
Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Corker (Tenn.) spent four days grasping for an answer to a question he called “unfair” before finally saying he didn’t want to “make news.” Other GOP lawmakers are no more eager to talk about the 2020 campaign than Trump himself wants to discuss the intricacies of Stormy Daniels’s lawsuit.
But while the president and his team of misfit lawyers have reason to tread carefully under stormy legal skies, Republicans on Capitol Hill can relax. It’s becoming clear that Trump will not be running for president in 2020.
This past week, White House office pools reportedly set up in anticipation of the next staff firing are shifting their focus to predicting which Trump family member will be the first to land behind bars. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s independent investigation into Russia may have inspired a defiant West Wing response, but the U.S. attorney’s raid of Michael Cohen’s home, office and hotel room has stirred more fear and loathing inside White House offices than at any time since President Richard Nixon battled Watergate prosecutors in the summer of 1973.
Now, even Trump’s most steadfast allies are quietly admitting that the Southern District of New York’s investigation poses an existential threat to his future, both politically and legally. Trump allies are telling the president his “fixer” could flip for the feds, just like Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos. In Washington and across the country, Republicans are sensing the president is a wounded political figure, leading them to withhold their future support or — in one high-profile case — to challenge the president directly.
Which brings us to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The former South Carolina governor announced last Sunday that the United States would impose additional sanctions against Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Haley’s declaration enraged Trump, despite the inconvenient fact she was only following White House policy and GOP talking points. Still, the president went behind his ambassador’s back to assure the Russians he would kill any future sanctions. Other White House officials played down Haley’s remarks, describing America’s representative at the United Nations as “confused.”
Haley’s response to the charge was as sharp as it was telling.
“With all due respect, I do not get confused.”
With those nine words, the ambassador declared that, unlike most other members of Trump’s Cabinet, she would not allow herself to be humiliated by a political day trader, whose fitful 15 minutes of fame will come to a close long before a new president takes the oath of office in 2021.
Still, another scenario came to mind this week: How wonderful would it be for our daughters to see this woman — this daughter of immigrants — take a debate stage to coldly cut the Donald down to size, revealing to the world once and for all that this bloated emperor has no clothes?
What a sight that would be.
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I first met Barbara Bush when she was a River Oaks socialite, through my late sister, and recognized a superior human being. The next time that superior being was First Lady, but still with the same charm and wit. She will be missed.