U.S. pro-democracy policy is surviving, but only in places Trump considers ‘shitholes’

Trump at the State Department in April 2017.
Trump at the State Department in April 2017.

Earlier today, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a riveting and important article posing a troubling question: Can U.S. Democracy Policy Survive Trump?

(Suggestion: Get your mind off Kavanaugh and read it. It won’t cheer you up, but at least you’ll feel smarter when it’s over instead of dumber.)

I admire the bluntness with which Thomas Carothers, the endowment’s senior vice president,  and Frances Z. Brown, a fellow there, describe the problem.

“In short,” they write, “the U.S. president has become a leading light for the surging anti-democratic forces in many parts of the world, a development genuinely unthinkable just a few years ago.”

They back this up very, very well.

I admire how they acknowledge that the “shortcomings of U.S. democracy policy are hardly new” — although Trump’s actions amount to a “diminishment of a different order of magnitude.”

And I’m sympathetic to their argument that, even as the U.S. is praising dictators and denouncing democratic allies at the Trump level, U.S. diplomats are nevertheless quietly and seriously countering democratic backsliding overseas.

But if you look at which countries Carothers and Brown are able to cite as examples of the latter, it appears that pretty much the only place where diplomats are successfully pursuing pro-democracy efforts is in Africa.

You may recall that Trump called the African continent a “shithole” back in January, as he complained privately about non-white immigration. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked.

It was an unmistakably, horrifyingly racist comments that dehumanized people and denigrated entire populations and cultures. It was contemptible.

And sadly, it also suggests why diplomats are still able to do their job in Africa: Because Trump simply doesn’t care.

Read moreU.S. pro-democracy policy is surviving, but only in places Trump considers ‘shitholes’

Time is not on Brett Kavanaugh’s side

The FBI’s renewed investigation into multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by Brett Kavanaugh is not good news for him, or for Donald Trump.

The foremost danger for them, of course, is that FBI agents will quickly and easily find evidence that supports the allegations — or that confirms Kavanaugh’s alter ego as a lying, abusive drunk, hints of which we saw when he lost control in front of a Senate panel on Thursday.

But even if the investigation has been so neutered by the White House counsel as to foreordain a coverup, it gives those who see Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court as an affront to core American values a great gift: Time.

Looking at the multitude of ways in which the Trump presidency is profoundly not normal, a consistent factor is how quickly we lurch from drama to drama, without a moment’s peace. The public and the press can barely keep track of the crises, not to mention process them, react to them, prevent them, or think about how to repair them.

That’s the pace we were going at again on Friday — until Senator Jeff Flake was finally persuaded to call for a few days’ delay.

If Trump is effectively programming the ultimate reality TV series, Thursday’s cliffhanger was supposed to resolve over the weekend, allowing for a new arc to start today.

Instead, the focus is staying on Kavanaugh, utterly overwhelming any interest in Trump’s actually quite startling trade announcement, and turning the ensuing question-and-answer session into yet another occasion for Trump to free-associate, smirkily mocking Democratic senators, falsely asserting that Kavanaugh acknowledges ever had a drinking problem, and offhandedly calling the press corps of being “a part of the Democrat party.”

E.J. Dionne, Jr. noted the upside of the delay in his Washington Post opinion column:

The good news is that the investigation offers time for one important reality to sink in: It is simply not true, as was so often claimed, that both witnesses were equally “believable.”

I strongly endorse his suggested reading, by the way:

Every undecided senator should read Philip Bump’s extensive fact checkin The Post flagging answers Kavanaugh gave that “stretched or misrepresented the truth.” Then, the senators should turn to the New York Times’ equally comprehensive analysis describing responses Kavanaugh gave that were “misleading, disputed or off point.”

And they can examine a very helpful graph created by Alvin Chang at Vox. It uses bright colors to chart the comparative responsiveness of the two witnesses. Where they answered directly, the graph showed blue; where they dodged a question or refused to answer, it showed magenta. Ford’s chart is a sea of blue; Kavanaugh’s is replete with evasive magenta.

But there’s another, maybe even more important reality that should and could sink in with a little more time: how Kavanaugh’s red-faced, venomous partisan outburst on Thursday – calling the allegations “a calculated and orchestrated political hit…  on behalf of the Clintons” – renders him unfit for a leading role in a judicial branch that is supposed to be beyond partisan politics.

Now, obviously the Supreme Court is riven with politics, with four of its members already representing extremist right-wing views of the Constitution and social justice. But its members collegially avoid declaring their party loyalties, rather than get spitting mad about them. The appearance of a judicial system that is blind to bias is imperative for our democracy, even if the reality falls a bit short.

And don’t underestimate the value of a blistering, hysterically funny Saturday Night Live sketch (11 million views and counting on YouTube alone) in affecting popular discourse. Normally, Trump outrages have come and gone before SNL is able to mock them.

Finally, although the Kavanaugh nomination initially brought together almost everyone under the conservative tent including the never-Trumpers, the next few days will give that coalition more time to fray, and might give the tiny handful of allegedly non-Trump-lickspittle Republican senators a chance to find some way to vote no.

Because it’s no longer just a matter of Trump putting a lasting conservative imprint on the Supreme Court.

It’s now a matter of putting a Trump imprint on the Supreme Court – the imprint of misogyny, rage, white-male victimization, loss of control, and manifest unfitness for the job. And that imprint, placed by the Republican Party that has many elections in its future, would last a lifetime.

With a new NAFTA, Trump’s norm-shattering favors labor for once

Trump announces new trade agreement.
Trump announces new trade agreement.

Donald Trump has smashed presidential precedents left and right -– almost exclusively to the benefit of the right.

The uppermost current example, of course, is his backing of an unhinged apparent sexual predator who would use a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court to fight for white patriarchy and unlimited executive power.

But the trade agreement Trump announced today includes some concessions to the labor movement that Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — reflecting the globalist consensus long embraced by the bipartisan elite in Washington – saw as utterly anachronistic.

It also reflects a rejection of the deeply held view among previous presidents from both parties that the unfettered flow of capital and goods serves U.S. interests – despite the ample evidence that it favors giant multinational corporations and investors over American workers.

“Without tariffs, we wouldn’t be standing here,” Trump said Monday morning. And although he doesn’t seem to understand how tariffs actually work, he was probably right.

It’s too early to conclude anything with great certainty – the final text is only now being closely examined by third parties, and it’s likely there are all sorts of pro-corporate surprises to come, especially when it comes to patents and intellectual property.

But starting in 2020, the new deal would require “a car or truck must have 75 percent of its components manufactured in Canada, Mexico or the United States, a substantial boost from the current 62.5 percent requirement,” the Washington Post reports. “There’s also a new rule that a significant percentage of the work done on the car must be completed by workers earning at least $16 an hour, or about three times what the typical Mexican autoworker makes.”

Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Trade Watch, and the dean of the anti-globalization/anti-free-trade activists, issued a statement that I’m pretty sure was more favorable than any she’s issued in my lifetime. “The new deal includes some important improvements for which we have long advocated, some new terms we oppose and more work required to stop NAFTA’s ongoing job outsourcing, downward pressure on our wages and environmental damage,” she said.

She called out “important progress… with the removal of investment terms that help outsource jobs and a dramatic reining-in of NAFTA’s outrageous corporate Investor State Dispute Settlement tribunals under which corporations have grabbed hundreds of millions from taxpayers after attacks on environmental and health policies.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s new strategy “seeks to win over labor unions long opposed to free-trade pacts, while maintaining support from business groups that have generally supported them.”

And Teamsters leader Jim Hoffa said in a statement that the union was “pleased” by the new agreement, noting “with approval the considerable progress on workers’ rights.” He said new labor requirements “contain obligations and protections that are superior to the original NAFTA, and also to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

The New York Times didn’t know what to make of Trump’s press conference; the Washington Post did

Faced with how to write up what it called Trump’s “rambling” press conference on Wednesday, the New York Times offered its readers a grab-bag of observations. Its main story was literally headlined: “5 Takeaways From Trump’s News Conference at the United Nations” (although in the print edition, where it ran on page A16, the headline was possibly even more anodyne: “United Nations, Accusations and More: Trump in 83 Minutes.”)

The Times covered the Trump press conference as if he were a normal president, trying to tease out the biggest news and report it dutifully, stenographically, and without much context or editorializing.

The New York Times may be thriving, but here it failed.

By contrast, some subset of the Washington Post staff appears to have listened intently to the press conference and realized that there was an incredibly significant story to tell about what Trump said, and that it was almost entirely about the context. This was not a story that could be told with stenography.

And although that story did not lead the print edition — there was a bland rehash under the headline “On hearing’s eve, Trump stands by Kavanaugh” — the Post’s website led through the night and into the morning with the much more important article by Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker, headlined “Defending Kavanaugh, Trump laments #MeToo as ‘very dangerous’ for powerful men”.

And here are its memorable first two paragraphs:

President Trump on Wednesday placed himself at the center of the anguished national debate over sexual assault, suggesting in his defense of embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh that the #MeToo movement was “very dangerous” and unfairly threatened an entire class of powerful men.

Trump’s expansive argument cast doubt on the credibility not only of the three women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, but also on scores of other women who have claimed sexual abuse by prominent men, including the president himself.

Reporters at major news organizations often hold back, knowing that making strong conclusions or — even worse —  taking sides could subject them to criticism from their editors, and their editors’ editors. And even the Post story didn’t go as far as I did last night, calling Trump’s comments clearly and overtly misogynistic.

But editors of both papers should ask themselves this morning: Whose readers were served better? And the answer is clear.

Was it this?

Or was it this?

The big news from Trump’s press conference is that he hates women

Typically, faced with a wide-ranging news conference, reporters try to figure out what was the biggest news, and to lead with that.

And yes, Trump said some individually astonishing things. He acknowledged that he “fights back” in a way some people apparently misinterpret as obstruction of justice. He asserted that Barack Obama came close to launching a nuclear war against North Korea. He accused China, without evidence, of trying to interfere in the midterm elections. And he insisted that the assembled leaders at the United Nations weren’t laughing at him on Tuesday, they were laughing with him.

But the big “news” is that taken as a whole, Trump showed possibly more clearly than ever before that he lives in a fantasy world where reality bends to whatever he wants to believe is true.

And even more importantly, taken as a whole, it was an extraordinary display of misogyny, both in how he answered some questions and how he refused to answer others. He has never treated women so clearly as the “other”, and as suspect, and as a threat to men.

He had no empathy for women as victims of sexual assault. Quite the contrary: He acknowledged that that he sympathizes with people who’ve been accused of sexual assault because he has, too. And he ended with a particularly dire warning about how “it’s a very dangerous period in our country” because women are accusing famous people of sexual assault.

I’m going to focus on Trump’s comments about women, because I don’t think he has ever spoken more honestly about his feelings toward them. They are threatening. They are not to be trusted. They love him (but they don’t.)

Read moreThe big news from Trump’s press conference is that he hates women

The central question reporters need to ask Trump today is why he lies so much

Trump at his last solo press conference in February 2017.
Trump at his last solo press conference in February 2017.

Reporters who may have a chance to ask a question at Trump’s solo news conference this afternoon – only the fourth of his presidency – need to keep one thing uppermost in their minds: Trump lies almost all the time.

So standing up, asking a traditional question, and then sitting down — and not addressing his credibility problem front and center — is enabling. It’s treating him like a normal president, and making him look like a normal president, when he is not.

Trump has largely refused to answer questions at any length from anyone other than prescreened sycophantic so-called journalists, allowing him to not just maintain but burnish the veneer of normalcy. But even on those extremely rare occasions when he sat down with, say, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, his interlocutors seemed too caught up in the ecstasy of access to do their jobs.

The public never has a chance to subject Trump to sustained questioning. So the White House press corps’ job is to expose Trump for what he is, not hunt for evanescent scooplets. It’s to give the public a glimpse of what they know about Trump but rarely say: That he doesn’t actually understand his job, he doesn’t have any real principles, he acts like a spoiled child, and he is a pathological liar.

The good news, such as it is, is that Trump’s first press conference, just a few weeks after his inauguration, was as good a demonstration of his manifest incompetence and troubling mental state as anything before or since. The New York Times delicately described it as “an extraordinarily raw and angry defense of both his administration and his character. At times abrupt, often rambling, characteristically boastful yet seemingly pained at the portrayals of him.” The New Yorker said it “demonstrated, again, that he long ago escaped the bounds of reality that restrict most mortals.” So it’s a real opportunity for the press corps, if they do their job right.

What specifically should reporters do? Ask simple questions, requiring factual response — then firmly and repeatedly follow up by pointing out how his answer was factually incorrect, unintelligible, nonresponsive, or all of those. And when it comes to the scandals, some variation of the Watergate question can be handy: What did you know and when did you know it?

For instance:

Q. When did you first learn there were questions about Brett Kavanaugh’s history of sexual assaults?

Q. During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign? (This actually a Robert Mueller question, see below.)

Don’t ask what he’s going to do, because he’ll do it soon enough. Don’t dare him to say stupid things, like asking him if he’ll demand a criminal investigation into who wrote the anonymous op-ed.

Topical questions are inevitable, although the answers are not necessarily going to be the most memorable. A few possibilities:

Q. Do you think Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein should fire Robert Mueller and close his investigation? Do you think that if and when Sessions and Rosenstein resign or get fired, that their successors should fire Robert Mueller and close his investigation? Do you see any constitutional limitations on your authority here?

Q. Do you actually feel your administration has accomplished more than almost any other in history, despite the overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary? Do you realize that most people, including the leaders of the world, find that assertion literally laughable?

Q. Physicians for Human Rights yesterday said that by withdrawing your support for international human rights norms and from engagement with the international human rights machinery — on the grounds that they impinge on a nation’s freedom — you are giving dictators around the world a green light to violate human rights standards. How is that not the case? Are there any ongoing human rights violations that concern you, and what should be done about them?

I received several great questions in response to my Facebook post requesting ideas yesterday. Jim Naureckas suggested a variation on that one:

Q. Candidate Trump promised that if elected, he would make the world respect the US again. How does that square with Trump being laughed at by the United Nations?

I’d like to ask:

Q. What kind of personal behavior is disqualifying for a Supreme Court nominee, and is there a statute of limitations?

Kerry Gilpin proposed, similarly:

Q. If testimony or a proper investigation reveals Brett Kavanaugh to have committed sexual assault either as a teenager or an adult, will you withdraw his nomination? If not, what is the standard to which you hold the highest justices in the land?

The U.S. is currently involved in a number of military campaigns, and is providing support to the Saudi-backed coalition that has repeatedly bombed civilians in Yemen. This ought to be a matter of great public interest.

Q. Why are we supporting the Saudi-backed coalition by coordinating, refueling and targeting bombing runs using American bombs? Did you know the coalition recently targeted a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 children with a laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin and sold as part of a State Department-sanctioned arms deal? How do you defend U.S. participation in that sort of horror?

Q. What is your thinking about a timeline for bringing U.S. troops out of Syria?

(Trump was actually asked that question in April, and was unable to answer intelligibly.)

I also think it’s remarkable how little we know about Trumps views on basic issues. This is, I suspect, mostly because he doesn’t really have many fixed views at all. But I’d like to ask him:

Q. How big a problem do you think police brutality is? Do you think it’s worse for African Americans than Whites?

Q. Do you consider yourself a white nationalist, and if not, where do you feel you differ?

Q. How do you interpret the take-care clause of the Constitution: Do you feel you are allowed to use presidential powers to enrich yourself, or to protect yourself from criminal investigation?

Q. How much independence should the Department of Justice have?

Q. When you said you would drain the swamp, what did you mean? Can you by any measure say you have succeeded, given how you and top aides have behaved?

Q. You have repeatedly praised autocrats and authoritarian regimes, including Jose Duterte of the Philippines, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Yesterday, you praised Poland, where you said “a great people are standing up for their independence, their security and their sovereignty.” But Poland is now under one-party rule, and its judiciary is under political control. What do you admire about these leaders and these countries? In which ways do you emulate them or condemn them?

For Trump, the simplest questions are gotcha questions: Ollie Bass on Facebook proposed this one:

Q. Who pays the tariff taxes? China?

What about asking some of the questions that Trump’s lawyers won’t let him answer under oath because they know he’ll lie about them? As it happens, we have a copy of the questions Mueller wants to ask Trump about obstruction. Here are some of them:

Q. What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

Q. What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

Q. What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

Q. What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?

Q. What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?

And here are a few more from Facebook:

Q. Why is it that in every case concerning sexual assault you side with the accused immediately? Is it because you feel a common bond with them? (Barry Medlin)

Q. If OPEC is so bad, why are you selling $100 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis? (Michael Airhart )

Q. With reference to your suggestion of “a con game being played by the Democrats,” are you familiar with the term “projection” and would it please you to know that “people say” that you have provided the greatest examples of it in the world? (Eric Brody)

Will any of these work? They sure might. The first time Trump faced the press corps as president by himself, he asserted in his opening statement about his election victory, “I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.”

When it was NBC reporter Peter Alexander‘s turn to ask a question, it went like this:

Q. Very simply, you said today that you had the biggest electoral margins since Ronald Reagan with 304 or 306 electoral votes. In fact, President Obama got 365 in 2008.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m talking about Republican. Yes.

Q President Obama, 332. George H.W. Bush, 426 when he won as President. So why should Americans trust —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, I was told — I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given. We had a very, very big margin.

Q I guess my question is, why should Americans trust you when you have accused the information they receive of being fake when you’re providing information that’s fake?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t know. I was given that information. I was given — actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?

Q You’re the President.

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thank you. That’s a good answer. Yes.

Kudos to Alexander. But either he or someone else should have followed up further.

Q. You say you were “given that information”. It was wildly, facially inaccurate. It has repeatedly been shown to be inaccurate. Yet you repeat it over and over again. Who “gave it to you”? Why did you believe them? Why do you continue to say it? And why should we believe you about anything else if you lie about things like this?

Correction: This will be Trump’s fourth solo press conference as president. An earlier version of this post said it would be his second. He also gave solo press conferences in New York, on August 15, 2017, and in Singapore, on June 12.