Trump welcomes another authoritarian to the White House

Polish president Andrzej Duda.
Polish president Andrzej Duda.

Struggling to cement a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, Donald Trump on Tuesday welcomes to the White House the president of Poland, whose far-right party has effectively put its formerly independent judiciary under strict political control.

Trump is evidently a fan.

He made his first European stop as president in Warsaw in 2017, where he effusively praised Poland for ardently defending Western values and democratic ideals – something Poland had been doing, more or less, since communism collapsed more than 25 years ago and until 2015, when the virulently nationalist Law and Justice Party swept the elections and began establishing one-party rule.

The party used the same authoritarian playbook that has been so successful for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As Stanford international studies professor Anna Grzymala-Busse described it for me last year: “First, target the highest courts and the judiciary, then restrict the independence of the media and civil society, and finally transform the constitutional framework and electoral laws in ways that enshrine their hold on power.”

Tuesday’s meeting is not precisely between two strongmen, however. The visiting  president, Andrzej Duda, is more of a figurehead; Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice party’s chair, is the man who calls the shots.

Duda will be asking Trump to put a permanent U.S. military base in his country. Poland is offering $2 billion to build it, as protection against Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin hosts Hungary’s Orbán in Moscow on Tuesday.

In addition to Putin and Orban – who was the first leader of an EU or NATO country to endorse Trump’s campaign — Trump’s closest friends among world leaders include China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, and Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines leader overseeing a bloody, extrajudicial slaughter in the name of a war on drugs.

Update: The New York Times has published a marvelous article on Trump and Poland: Poland’s Leader Finds an Ally in Trump, Even as He Brings Courts to Heel.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t blame Trump (or Russia) as much as she blames the Koch Brothers

Flag in distress
Source: torbakhopper/Flickr

One of the big questions I’ll be addressing on White House Watch is whether Donald Trump is the symptom or the disease.

If he’s the disease, then when he goes away, everything will be fine again. Our constitutional democracy will right itself, and we’ll be on our way.

But if he’s the symptom, then even when he’s gone, the disease is still with us.

Hillary Clinton weighs in today with an important essay in the Atlantic, an excerpt from the new afterword to her book “What Happened”.

And while much of the media coverage is boiling it down to “Hillary Clinton Slams Trump,” Clinton takes the darker view: that Trump, “despicable” as his actions are, is the result of something even worse.

“[O]ur democratic institutions and traditions are under siege,” she writes. “[T]he assault on our democracy didn’t start with his election. He is as much a symptom as a cause of what ails us.”

Yes, she leads off with a very useful summary of Trump’s most recent examples of “unspeakable cruelty” and “monstrous neglect.” Then she lists Trump’s five main assaults on our democracy: on the rule of law, on the legitimacy of elections; on truth and reason; on ethics; and on “the national unity that makes democracy possible.”

But the heart of her essay blames democracy’s biggest challenges not on Trump but on the Koch Brothers and their ilk:

Over many years, our defenses were worn down by a small group of right-wing billionaires—people like the Mercer family and Charles and David Koch—who spent a lot of time and money building an alternative reality where science is denied, lies masquerade as truth, and paranoia flourishes.

And the GOP in general:

The increasing radicalism and irresponsibility of the Republican Party, including decades of demeaning government, demonizing Democrats, and debasing norms, is what gave us Donald Trump.

Clinton, like an increasing number of political scientists, argues that getting rid of Trump is only the beginning. And although her top priority is, not surprisingly, “massive turnout in the 2018 midterms,” she outlines a broad reform agenda.

When the dust settles, we have to do some serious housecleaning. After Watergate, Congress passed a whole slew of reforms in response to Richard Nixon’s abuses of power. After Trump, we’re going to need a similar process.

That includes ethics requirements for the president, voting reforms – including campaign finance reform and the abolition of the Electoral College – and “restitch[ing] our fraying social fabric and rekindle our civic spirit.”

Clinton’s proposed solutions are remarkably vague and they feel, at least for the moment, beyond our grasp. But along with Protect Democracy’s legislative blueprint called “Roadmap for Renewal,” they provide a solid jumping-off point for some serious and urgent national conversations about the anti-authoritarian, democracy-bolstering agenda the country needs after a presidency that has shown us, as Clinton writes, “[h]ow fragile our experiment in self-government is.”

Former New York Times Washington bureau chief decries false equivalence

David Leonhardt, the former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, writes in his New York Times opinion column today about the blatant mischaracterization of the political parties by reporters who think false equivalence makes them look smart.

Leonhardt’s thesis is this:

The Democrats have not actually become radical leftists, or anything close to it.

And he explains:

You keep hearing this story partly because Republicans have an obvious interest in promoting it and partly because large parts of the news media find it irresistible. It’s a “both side do it” angle that allows us journalists to appear tough, knowing and above the partisan scrum. We love that image. But the facts don’t support the story in this case.

Normally I would celebrate such an acknowledgment. One of my journalistic deities is James Fallows of the Atlantic, who is also one of the most consistent chroniclers and decriers of false equivalence, which he describes  as the “strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying ‘sides’ of a story, even if one of the sides is objectively true and the other is just made up.”

And in the Trump era, any attempt to find balance between the two sides inevitably normalizes what is a profoundly abnormal presidency.

But this is the New York Times we’re talking about here. It lifts you up, sure, but it also breaks your heart.

And the thing is: Leonhardt’s example kind of sucks.

While he decries false balance, which is indeed one of the D.C. elite media’s greatest sins, he simultaneously indulges in another one: Pooh-poohing progressives as marginal, unelectable, and radical.

He argues that Republicans have gone off the rails over the last several years, adopting an objectively radical agenda. True. True well before Trump, in fact. Now they’re also completely unhinged.

But Leonhardt then credits the Democratic Party for its centrism, for not endorsing such things as single-payer health insurance, or a dramatic increase in taxes on the rich.

He writes off recent progressive victories by chortling that “the list of progressive insurgents who got thumped is much longer. In New York, Cynthia Nixon didn’t crack 35 percent.”

But there is movement in the Democratic Party, and I suspect that movement is more Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. More Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Joe Crowley.

And the more progressive agenda isn’t nearly as radically left as the modern Republican Party is radically right. It actually reflects majority positions in many cases. See, for instance, this Reuters chart:

Chart from Reuters.
Chart from Reuters.

So Leonhardt urges his former staffers to stop saying both parties are radical when only one is. But then he keeps false equivalence in his back pocket just in case the Democrats stray from what the Washington media defines as the center.

Kavanaugh accused, Trump unmoved

Los Angeles Times front page.
Los Angeles Times front page.

A credible allegation of attempted rape against Brett Kavanaugh may or may not lead Senate Republicans to slow their furious, reckless rush to cement a far-right five-man majority on the Supreme Court on behalf of Donald Trump

But you can be certain that Trump himself won’t abandon Kavanaugh.

That’s because what’s at issue here is an attack on a woman — in the context of a presidency that has been misogynistic to its core.

As the Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote a few days after the 2016 election, “Trump and his followers have normalized the demeaning of women, even in its coarsest, crudest forms.”

Trump himself bragged about assaulting women in the infamous grab-them-by-the-pussy tape. And he has consistently treated women as objects.

Isolated women are valued – but as decoration, or as a way of defending against accusations of sexism. (Or, in the case of his daughter Ivanka, both.)

Kavanaugh was Trump’s master stroke against women. Under a veneer of respectful behavior, he was a sure bet to be the fifth vote to undermine minority rights in general, and women’s reproductive rights in particular.

Kavanaugh’s disrespect for women’s autonomy over their own bodies was on full display during his Senate confirmation hearings – not by virtue of what he said, but by virtue of what he didn’t say. Despite hailing a number of other Supreme Court precedents, he said nothing about Roe v. Wade definitive enough to contradict previous expressions of skepticism.

And despite his homage to his very accomplished mother, and his record of hiring women clerks, he showed no empathy for women in general.

If Kavanaugh’s treatment of women (or a woman) is his downfall, it could be a harbinger of what’s to come. At least that’s the argument that noted feminist author Jill Filipovic makes in Vice today.

Although it seems like ages, it was less than a month ago that Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen pled guilty to making illegal payments to Trump’s mistresses — a crime in which Trump was an unindicted co-conspirator.

As Filipovic writes: “That was the clearest indication yet that Trump committed an illegal act during his campaign, and it had nothing at all to do with backroom deals with Russia.”

And coming up: Trump’s required answers to question in a defamation lawsuit from Summer Zervos, a former contestant on his reality show The Apprentice who says Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007.

Will Kavanaugh face a reckoning? Will Trump? If not, it will just make it that much harder to repair the damage the Trump era has done to the cause of women’s rights.

As Pollitt wrote, “the tremendous amount of collective work it took to create and maintain even the minimal norms of civility and respect for women has been undone. It won’t be so easy to rebuild those norms.”

The return of White House Watch

Welcome and welcome back.

Nine years after the end of its run at the Washington Post, White House Watch is back as an independent website.

Despite the abundance of Trump coverage, I see two ways it can add value above the din:

  1. By relentlessly putting Trump’s incremental actions in their proper, alarming context as an ongoing, corrupt assault on pluralism, shared truths, and core liberal democratic values; and
  2. By convening an ongoing online dialogue about what we need to do once Trump is gone, with an emphasis on strengthening our democracy and curbing executive branch powers that have grown unchecked.

We can’t allow this to become the new normal. So how do we restore pre-Trump expectations? And having learned some very painful lessons, how do we apply them to rebalance and reenergize our democracy?

I don’t have the answers, but I’m excited about asking the questions and reporting what I hear.

In addition to multiple postings using the latest news as a point of departure, I’ll do my own reporting and interviews. I’ll talk to experts about the weakening of the checks and balances intended to protect us from tyranny, and how to strengthen them. I’ll review literature on key topics, especially related to the violation and restoration of norms. I’ll experiment with online annotation of articles, essays and white papers. Depending on the site’s budget, there could be podcasts and even teach-ins.

I’m also intent on offering a megaphone to the growing community of groups and individuals already focused on the work of restoring and protecting core democratic principles. The endless scandals, outrages and distractions of the Trump era have robbed them of the national attention they deserve. White House Watch will work with them on internet time to inject their important perspective into the daily political discourse.

The original White House Watch resonated more strongly with readers than anything I’ve done since.

To do it again, though, I’m going to need your help.  Please participate. That means brainstorming about the subjects at hand. It also means telling me what the site can do better and needs to fix, or change.

Spread the word. Share widely. And please consider supporting White House Watch through donations of money or services. White House Watch has a hybrid business model that includes some institutional support and some private support, so If you’re a like-minded group, let’s work together. Please donate here, or email me at

When Trump blows hard, the daily news coverage is way too soft

Originally published on Medium.

Books and op-eds have lately been helping the public more fully grasp just how dysfunctional, deceitful and amoral the Trump White House is. But the daily news stories (unless they are about those books and op-eds)? Not so much.

Consider the formulaic, not particularly enlightening coverage of Trump’s assertion Tuesday (followed by a tweet Wednesday) that his administration had done a great job helping Puerto Rico after it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

This was really a Trump doozy, not just outrageously, objectively wrong — even crazy — but redolent of so many of Trump’s most horrible characteristics: racism, lack of empathy, cluelessness and/or mendacity, and narcissism.

And, for good measure, it cast considerable doubt on his placating platitudes about how prepared his administration is for a massive hurricane currently bearing down on the Carolinas.

The New York Times story was a huge missed opportunity, relying on a slightly snarky tone and stenography instead of putting his comments in their appropriate context.

Here’s the lede, by the profoundly talented and extraordinarily accomplished Frances Robles (so I blame her editors):

President Trump patted himself on the back Tuesday for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico, where the government estimates that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria last year.

The first real pushback, after two more paragraphs of Trump stenography, is a nitpick about Trump’s misleading mention of a ship-based military hospital.

It isn’t until the eighth paragraph that we get, in the form of a quote from a third party, to the point that should have been made explicitly at the top:

“If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all,” said Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, in a post on Twitter.

And nowhere in the story does it explain how many of the deaths were due to negligence, what precisely that negligence was, or why Trump might have neither cared much about Puerto Rico to begin with or now thinks it was a success.

The Associated Press story was a word salad of uncontextualized stenography, leading up to a “you decide” nut graph:

The administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico received widespread criticism, and he battled with Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. But after visiting the island last September, Trump said that Puerto Ricans were fortunate that the storm did not yield a catastrophe akin to the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

At the Washington Post, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner at least put some needed context in the lede, reporting that “researchers have estimated there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths.”

They further explained:

In a report published last month, George Washington University researchers estimated that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria had led to 2,975 excess deaths in the six months after the storm. The government of Puerto Rico has embraced the estimate, which the researchers arrived at by comparing the number of deaths after the hurricane to typical death rates and adjusting for a range of variables.

And they noted that an after-action report from FEMA had acknowledged some degree of fault.

But it was nevertheless a pretty listless story.

Let’s be real: To pretty much anyone who has the least idea of what happened in Puerto Rico, or what’s going on in Trump’s head, the only human reaction to what Trump said about Puerto Rico is a double-take.

And here’s where CNN, for a change, really shone. Instead of trying and failing to cram a double-take into the formulaic he-said-she-said incremental newspaper story, CNN’s folks reacted like human beings.

Right after cutting away from Trump’s live remarks, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin brought on White House correspondent Kaitlin Collins and expressed appropriate incredulity.

Three thousand people died according to this most recent George Washington University study and the administration’s response is still under fire. Where is this incredibly successful even coming from?

Collins replied:

That’s the question a lot of people are going to have after hearing the President’s comments there…. [T]he President looking back at Puerto Rico saying that it was an unsung success, that it was very successful, talking about the praise they received after that hurricane hit for the administration’s response. Which frankly, Brooke, just isn’t the case here. It’s actually been widely criticized because, of course, at first the death toll was in the dozens, and then it was raised to roughly 3,000 people who died there in Puerto Rico.

Half an hour later, CNN’s Jake Tapper drilled down in a conversation with CNN political commentators Angela Rye and Amanda Carpenter that hit all the right notes. Enjoy and learn:

Tapper: Obviously, when it comes to this pending storm, we’re all hoping for the best and hoping the Trump administration does everything it can do.

But the president saying that Puerto Rico was an unsung success, when the latest official government death toll from the government of Puerto Rico—and let’s remember these are American citizens—that’s a U.S. territory—is 2,975 dead. That is an unsung success.

Rye: No, it’s an unsung inaccuracy…. [N]ot to mention the number of people and families who had to relocate completely off the island, not to mention the fact that their economy is now on life support, and electricity is not all the way functioning, it’s far from a success.

And the fact that Donald Trump today would spend more time singing his own praises, rather than really leaning into a conversation with people in leadership there to figure out how they can really overcome and really have a success story for this particular storm, I think is very telling.

Tapper: Do you think, Amanda, that there are — President Trump doesn’t have the people around him who tell him, hey, by the way, don’t say that about Puerto Rico, it’s not a success, and they just upgraded the death toll to 2,975, that’s not a success, it’s embarrassing?

Carpenter: Perhaps, but I also think there’s probably people in the White House that have given up on trying to message the president.

I mean, look at his performance when he actually went to Puerto Rico. He is throwing out paper towels like he’s Santa Claus giving out goodies.

And I think this is part of the warped approach that he has towards disasters. He views it as an opportunity to hand out money and goodies for which people should be grateful to him. And he doesn’t understand the devastation and the fears.

And, honestly, if he thinks Puerto Rico is a success, I’m a little nervous. That makes me more nervous about Florence coming in.”