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.”

The purloined letter solves the mysterious case of the ‘internal resistance’

ary Cohn at the White House in July 2017.
Gary Cohn at the White House in July 2017. (White House photo)

Originally published on Medium.

Exhibit A in support of Trump insiders’ efforts to “control his impulses and prevent disasters” is the letter Gary Cohn stole off his desk.

As the Washington Post recounted in the first story on Bob Woodward’s new book:

Cohn, a Wall Street veteran, tried to tamp down Trump’s strident nationalism regarding trade. According to Woodward, Cohn “stole a letter off Trump’s desk” that the president was intending to sign to formally withdraw the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn later told an associate that he removed the letter to protect national security and that Trump did not notice that it was missing.

CNN has now posted the letter itself, dated September 5, 2017, as reproduced in Woodward’s book.

So, is this an example of Trump’s advisers saving him from unwittingly causing disaster and mayhem? Hardly.

For one, it’s been conflated with another Woodward anecdote, this one dating to January 19 (so the day before Trump’s inauguration?) at which Trump questioned the massive military presence in South Korea. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly told him.

Even in that case, Trump’s questioning, while ridiculed by Washington insider and “adult in the room” Mattis, is actually not ridiculous at all. Jeff Faux raised the same question in The Nation just last March in his article “Why Are US Troops Still in South Korea, Anyway?

“Citizens of our democracy looking for an answer soon find themselves lost in a fog of babble about America’s ‘vital interests.’ ” Faux wrote. He concluded that the U.S. military presence isn’t needed to defend South Korea, and by posing a threat to North Korea heightens tensions rather than lowers them.

But back to the actual letter, formally withdrawing the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea.

You will note that it is labeled “Pre-decisional/Deliberative” — so it wasn’t the copy Trump would actually have signed. And it doesn’t claim to end the trade deal — it provides 180 days notice, and includes an offer to negotiate.

Indeed, Trump had, a few months earlier, proudly announced his intent to end the Korea trade agreement right away — with no notice. In an April 2017 interview with the Washington Post, Trump called it “a horrible deal” that has left America “destroyed.”

His expressions of concern were hyperbolic — no surprise — but not entirely inaccurate.

As Lori Wallach, Public Citizen’s trade guru, explained to CBS Marketwatch(right around the time Cohn was whisking the letter off Trump’s desk), “The Korea agreement is the most dramatically failed of the free-trade agreements based on the model started by NAFTA.”

The data is brutal. Despite promises from George W. Bush and Barack Obama about how amazing it would be for U.S. workers, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea almost doubled in the agreement’s first five years. U.S. agricultural exports actually declined while a deluge of Korean cars were sold on the U.S. market.

Wallach had warned as much five years earlier, calling the deal “a job-offshoring, unsafe-import-flooding, ‘Buy America’-killing, food-safety-undermining, drug-price-rising, foreign-corporate-treasury-raiding, financial-deregulating trade agreement” that benefited giant multinational corporations most of all.

Flash forward to six months after Cohn took the letter off Trump’s desk: The administration announces a series of revisions to the Korean trade agreement, calling it “a major win for American workers and American businesses.”

But their net effect is laughable. Renegotiations left key issues that might have made a difference unaddressed, such as the elimination of job outsourcing incentives and addition of serious labor and environmental standards.

Scrapping the deal entirely would have been better for American workers.

Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president. He is abusing executive power, violating norms that protect our democracy, and trying to divide and confuse the country.

But the only thing the members of the “resistance” inside the administration seems to care about is protecting themselves — “resisting” Trump’s attacks on the military and its contractors, multinational companies, and orthodox GOP principles Trump didn’t run on and doesn’t share.

What don’t they care about? As Mehdi Hassan wrote this week for the Intercept — in the context of the anonymous Trump official who bragged in the New York Times about being one of the diligent insiders frustrating Trump’s agenda — “The widespread dishonesty, the rampant corruption, the brazen racism, the growing authoritarianism, the accusations of collusion — none of that tops your list of Trumpian abuses and infractions.”


For Brett Kavanaugh, the separation of powers is a one-way street

Originally published on the ACSblog. Part two of two. Read part one here.

In 2008, Brett Kavanaugh authored an extraordinary law review article specifically describing his views on the separation of powers – extraordinary because all of his suggestions expanded the power of the executive branch at the expense of the other two.

The executive branch has never been stronger and never been so unchecked by the other branches, but to Kavanaugh – and to the man who has nominated him to be a Supreme Court Justice – it’s never enough.

Kavanaugh and his fellow “unitarians” believe the Constitution vests the  president with direct and unbridled control over every single instrument of executive power — including the Justice Department and law enforcement.

Unlike the justice he would replace, Anthony Kennedy, Kavanaugh would be the fifth solid vote providing Trump with the legal justification to exercise the monarch-like authority that his tweets so clearly show that he craves.

Kavanaugh made five suggestions in his 2008 article. The first one has already been widely discussed: “Provide sitting presidents with a temporary deferral of civil suits and of criminal prosecutions and investigations.”

Another was to “Ensure prompt Senate votes on executive and judicial nominations.” And in a further attempt to cripple Congress’s ability to advise and consent, he also declared that “the political ideology and policy views of judicial nominees are clearly unrelated to their fitness as judges, and those matters therefore appear to lie outside the Senate’s legitimate range of inquiry.”

Kavanaugh’s third suggestion was to “Streamline executive branch organization and ensure that officials in independent agencies are more accountable.” Their independence “may weaken the Executive and strengthen Congress’s hand in the Washington power game,” he wrote. It also has “clear costs in terms of democratic accountability”. And what Kavanaugh considers accountability is accountability to the president, not the public.

Kavanaugh’s fourth suggestion was that everyone “Recognize that both the legislative and executive branches have legitimate and sometimes overlapping roles in war and national security.” But he only advocated limits on Congress

Kavanaugh endorsed the late Justice Robert Jackson’s framework for determining the legality of national security decisions: Category One is when Congress has authorized the president’s actions and his authority is “at its maximum”. Category Two is when Congress has neither authorized nor prohibited the action and presidents operate in a “zone of twilight”. Category Three is when Congress has prohibited an action and the president’s power is “at its lowest ebb.”

But Kavanaugh wrote that the courts shouldn’t take anything other than explicit, specific Congressional prohibition as triggering Category Three. “As a matter of judicial restraint and proper statutory interpretation, courts should be careful about finding a commander-in-chief case in Category Three based on implied prohibitions alone,” he warned – taking an obvious swipe at the high court’s landmark 2006 Hamdan ruling, which curbed the Bush/Cheney White House’s assertion of nearly unlimited executive power in a time of war.

Kavanaugh did not quote Jackson’s language about how in Category Three, “what is at stake is the equilibrium established by our constitutional system.” Instead, he described that condition as when “the President asserts his preclusive and exclusive commander-in-chief authority.”

Civil libertarians like David Cole, national director of the ACLU, think Kavanaugh has it exactly wrong. “If courts do not enforce constitutional and legislative limits on the executive branch’s broad invocations of national security, the president will have a blank check to violate fundamental individual rights,” Cole wrote in the New York Review of Books.

(Kavanaugh doesn’t believe a president’s war powers are limited by international law, either. He wrote in a 2010 case that for the courts to limit the president’s war powers based on international law “contravenes bedrock tenets of judicial restraint and separation of powers.”)

Kavanaugh’s final suggestion regarding separation of powers was to “Consider the possible benefits of a single, six-year presidential term.”

He argued that worrying about re-election is a distraction, and “makes it harder for presidents to tackle difficult but necessary issues in their first terms.” So while Kavanaugh stresses accountability for everyone else, he argues for removing any form of presidential accountability other than impeachment.

Read moreFor Brett Kavanaugh, the separation of powers is a one-way street

Congress should be concerned that Brett Kavanaugh wants to further restrict its power

Originally published on the ACSblog. Part one of two. Read part two here.

The framers of the Constitution established checks and balances between the branches of government to protect us from tyranny. But after one and a half years of Donald Trump, it is clearer than ever that that those checks and balances have given the president too much power.

There seems to be no way to effectively restrain Trump even when he’s acting irrationally, recklessly, cruelly or out of bigotry — whether he’s imprisoning migrant children, banning Muslims from entering the country, unilaterally sending missiles and troops into Syria and Yemen with no apparent strategy, turning regulatory agencies against themselves, using pardons for political purposes, threatening the media, and meeting alone with Vladimir Putin.

And that’s what we know about. Trump inherited hugely expanded national-security powers from the past two presidents that allow him to unilaterally and secretly conduct surveillance and order targeted killings abroad.

A Congress with any institutional pride at all would reject out of hand a judicial nominee who would cement a Supreme Court majority intent on giving yet more power to the executive branch, at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches.

But Brett Kavanaugh, who Trump has nominated to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, would do precisely that.

Kavanaugh’s views on absolute presidential immunity from civil suits, criminal prosecution and even being interviewed as part of a criminal investigation are well established by now. And of course they are particularly convenient for Trump given the current circumstance.

But that’s only one element of a broader argument Kavanaugh has made in more than two decades of speeches and jurisprudence: that the Constitution vests the president with so much power that in some cases he is above the law as written by Congress and interpreted by the courts.

As Norm Eisen and Ryan Goodman recently wrote for Slate, “Judge Kavanaugh helped pioneer a maximalist theory of presidential power associated with the notion of a ‘unitary executive.’ ”

Being a “unitarian” is not exactly the same as being an “originalist” — although they overlap when it comes to their contempt for the Supreme Court’s history of asserting constitutional protection for rights not explicitly identified in a text written by white men 229 years ago and not significantly amended since 1971.

For instance, in a talk he gave in 2017 about the William Rehnquist, Kavanaugh lauded the late chief justice’s belief “that fundamental rights must either be enumerated in the Constitution (like free speech) or deeply rooted in history and tradition. Abortion was neither an enumerated right nor deeply rooted in history and tradition.”

Kavanaugh, rather, is an originalist with a very expansive reading of Article II. That’s the one that vests executive power in the president – or, as unitarians insist, “all” executive power.

Read moreCongress should be concerned that Brett Kavanaugh wants to further restrict its power