Sunday, April 23, 2017

D.T. Phone Home

This week, Steve reports to our readers on a rather interesting fact about our readers, and sees some intriguing implications…

This week, the news was the news.

First came the intrepid reporters who discovered that the great armada Trump sent sailing to give North Korea a glimpse of good old-fashioned Republican shock and awe was actually headed in the opposite direction, leaving Sean Spicer writhing on the press podium with an explanation so tortured and painful that you’d have thought he’d just been bumped from a United flight.

Then, of course, the big news in the world of news was the ouster of Bill O’Reilly, which should have been a triumphant story about fearless women forcing a major company to seize the high moral ground regarding the kind of corporate culture a twenty-first century organization should embrace. Unfortunately, we are talking about decidedly Twentieth Century Fox, whose corporate culture reeks of a nineteenth-century gentleman’s club. Just weeks ago, Fox had inked O’Reilly to a new contract at a point in time when they knew full well about the sexual misconduct allegations piling up against their star. Their decision to terminate him therefore had little to do with an ethical stance, and much more with the fact that major sponsors suddenly viewed O’Reilly as the most toxic item in advertising since Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi. 

But the juiciest news of the week about news was that it was not Fox, nor Fox’s law firm, nor anything to do with Fox that led to O’Reilly’s demise. Full credit there goes to rival news organization The New York Times, which had waged a full-throttle investigation and multi-page expose on O’Reilly’s behavior. Salute the guts of the Times, whose leaders must be keenly aware that Fox will no doubt immediately commence its own retaliatory investigations, intent to find, or conveniently invent, Donald-Trump-style-embarrassing allegations about executives at the Grey Lady.  Watch out, New York Times execs: Fox News is the founder and ancestral home of fake news.

And let us round out the week of news here in our very own microscopic corner of the blogosphere, where we’ve noticed a curious bit of news about, well,

Like any website, we have access to basic data about where our readers are located. As you would expect, most of our readers are here in the United States – but the number is actually only about 60%. We were startled to learn that a full 40% or our readership is outside the United States.

We drilled down on that number, expecting the next highest readership to come from the logical places: our close, English-speaking allies – the U.K. and Canada.  Nope. A grand total of 3% of our audience comes from these two countries combined.

No, after the United States, the three biggest countries following BTRTN are – get this – Russia, France, and the Ukraine. Russia accounts for a full 7% of our readers. France is 6%, and Ukraine is 5%. That is to say, a full 12% of the traffic to our humble little political website is from the former Soviet Union. That was pretty darn startling news about us.

Now, perhaps most of that traffic is simply low grade cyberbots programmed by high school students in Kiev to find any and all combinations or groupings of words in the English language that include “Trump,” “blowhard,” “Putin,” and “shirtless angry dictator.”

And then there’s a fanciful romantic notion that BTRTN has been discovered by pockets of idealistic Russian intellectuals who just want a few good Trump and Putin jokes to stay sane as much as people in the United States.

But one cannot ignore the possibility that there is actually something intentional and vaguely sinister in those mysterious clicks, and it is hard to ignore the now familiar pattern that Russian and Ukrainian visits to our site vastly outnumber those from the four closest allies of the United States combined.  It suggests that Russia is simply devouring data about the United States in such massive quantities that even our little butterfly wings churning madly in the thin air at the distant reaches of the blogosphere have earned a weekly fly-by from some low-level intelligence functionary.

Hmmmm… I just had an idea! Dear readers in the United States, please bear with me for a moment. I would like to directly address our readers in Russia for a few paragraphs. 

“Hello, out there, Mr. or Ms. Low-level Russian intelligence functionary! This is Steve, a writer here at I hope you are enjoying this week’s column, and I thank you and all of your comrades for coming back week after week! Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, as long as I know you are reading this?

“First, I just have to ask… Doesn’t Russia know that Carter Page is just a small-time con artist who probably got dumped after so many first dates that he will promise anything to anybody? This guy must be the neediest milquetoast that the KGB had ever tried to recruit. Help me with this one, ok?

“But let me move on to my second question…

“Is Russia surging ahead in an entirely new form of warfare that is solely and wholly about the collection, manipulation, and redistribution of information? I mean, we just dropped that Mother of All Bombs, but I have a bad feeling that Russia is building the Mother of All Databases.

“Seriously, now… the United States spends billions on cyber intelligence, but it seems that money is all going toward sabotaging Kim Jong-Un missile launches, Iranian centrifuges, and trying to shorten the queue at VA Hospitals from sixteen years to under five months.

“You Russians, on the other hand, seem to be totally and completely focused on the business of collecting IP addresses, manipulating social media trend data, malevolently circulating erroneous and inflammatory information, and timing viciously incendiary fake news stories at just the moment when our President is alone with his Samsung Galaxy in Mar-a-Lago, waiting for sunrise with his itchy twitter finger.

“Why build bombs, you seem to be saying, when the United States can be manipulated into dropping them for you?  Why build weaponry to attack the United States when you can use data to get us to rip ourselves to pieces?

“As long as we’re having this nice little conversation, can you just tell us this: what exactly do you plan to do with the recordings you must have of Flynn and Manafort offering policy quid pro quos in exchange for you hacking the DNC? And was either of those clowns stupid enough to have confirmed on tape that Trump knew?

“Hey… hey… I know I am keeping you longer than you expected, and that you have to write up twenty more websites before your break, but just answer one more question, ok?

“Does Vlad still think it was such a brilliant idea to get Donald Trump elected President of the United States? Because my bet is that he has the worst case of buyer’s remorse since George Dubya picked Dick Cheney.

“Sure, you were having a real good laugh back in March because Donald Trump was single-handedly alienating long-standing U.S. allies, representing the United States as a nation of ignorant, bigoted, and uneducated buffoons, and – like so many other empty campaign promises – rapidly making the United States not so great, again and again and again.

“But beware of the law of unintended consequences. You had not counted on Trump being so casually adventurous with military excursions. Isn’t that ironic? When he said that he wasn’t interested in Syria, didn’t want the U.S. involved in foreign wars, and that he thought NATO was obsolete, you Russians – you, of all people – you believed his fake news! You thought you were doing all the spinning, but you got spun worse than anybody.

First you saw him decide that Assad is what Donald Rumsfeld used to call a 'good target,' and now you have to worry about that lone warm water port. 

Then you saw a crazy man waving a red flag in front of a prepubescent North Korean tyrant who’s got a finger on a nuclear arsenal, and you are correctly terrified about the regional fall-out from that potential catastrophe.

“Now you see him suddenly enjoying engaging in foreign military actions, which is what U.S. presidents do to distract citizens from domestic problems. You hear him saying that NATO isn’t obsolete after all.  Which, face it, is the last thing that dear Mother Russia wanted to hear.

“Hey there, Mr. Russian Reader, we have a suggestion. For your sake, for ours, and for the sake of everyone on the planet, it’s time to bring your little Donald Trump adventure to an end. It’s time to bring Donald Trump back from the brink on Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan, and time for him – and all of us – to focus on the issue of whether he committed an impeachable offense. What do you say?

“It is time to work all those back channels you created and get a message to Donald Trump. Tell him to pick up that hotline and get in touch with you.

“DT phone home! To Moscow. Let him know exactly what you have on him.

“It is time for you to reclaim the alien you foolishly thrust into our Presidency.  All you have to do is wrap that little tape in an envelope – you know, the one where Manafort mentions Trump’s name -- and address it to a news organization that actually knows how to bring a bad guy down. Send it to people who have the guts, the wherewithal, and the experience to do it the way only a real news organization knows how.

“Gee, what a coincidence. Just this week, The New York Times just did exactly that. Give them a try.

“And, hey, this goes out to all you folks in Russia who are reading our stuff – not just the intelligence officers! If any of you would like to open a dialog with us, just email us at  We’d be thrilled to hear from you. We’d love to know what you think of this crazy situation we are all in together. And we hope you’ve enjoyed our work. In its own little way, our site does give you a sense that as stupid as our country may look from time to time, we still have the power of an unrestricted and free press.

“And that may be the thing that actually does, someday, make us great again."

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Georgia’s 6th District: Ossoff Has a Chance to Win Outright, But A Runoff More Likely

We put this chart together three weeks ago to help understand the five special elections in the House in 2017 that were necessitated by political appointments.  Four of them were by Trump of cabinet members, and the other was in California and involved a Democrat representative landing that state’s Attorney General position.  Many eyes are focused on these races as providing insights into the state of the Trump presidency (and this is a legitimate thought) and also as a predictor of the 2018 midterms (this far less so).

Primary     Run-off
General Election
Nov. 2016 Outcome
Trump vs   Clinton
Pompeo (R)
Apr 11
61/30  R+31
60/33  R+27
Zinke (R)
May 25
56/41  R+15
56/36  R+20
Bacerra (D)
Apr 4
Jun 6
77/23 D+100 (D v D)
84/11  D+73
Price (R)
Apr 18
Jun 20
62/38  R+23
48/47  R+1
Mulvaney (R)
May 2
May 16
Jun 20
59/39  R+20
57/39  R+18

Since then the GOP received an enormous scare in Kansas’ 4th District, where they won the election on April 11th by a mere 7 points, just six months after Mike Pompeo won the same seat by +31 and Donald Trump the same district by +27.

Then California 34th went as predicted, with two Democrats taking the top two slots and Democrats winning 91% of the vote.  Thus it is a foregone conclusion that the Dems will hold this seat in the June runoff.

This brings is to today’s election, the primary race for Georgia’s 6th District.  This one is commanding national attention as Jon Ossoff, a Democratic newbie, leads the field of 18 and has a chance to win the seat outright if he can achieve more than 50% of the vote.  This would flip Tom Price’s seat, long a GOP stronghold, to the Dems, and be used by the Dems as evidence that Trump is losing support and could lose the House in 2018.

The main reason for the Democrat’s optimism is Hillary Clinton’s strong showing in the district in 2016 relative to that of Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.  As the chart shows, she lost to Trump by only a single point, 48/47.  Obama, on the other hand, was defeated by 18 points by John McCain in 2008 and 23 points by Mitt Romney in 2012.  And even though Tom Price won again in November 2016 by a comfortable margin (+23), that margin was slightly tighter this go-round than his wins in 2014 (+32) and 2012 (+29).  All of this, plus the rather disastrous start to the Trump administration and Price’s own failure as a key player in the “replace and repeal Obamacare” debacle, have led to Dem optimism that they can win here.

Georgia’s 6th is comprised primarily of northern Atlanta suburbs, which have higher median incomes than the state as a whole as well as greater educational attainment.  It also has a reasonably significant minority population, roughly 25%.  Ossoff has raised a whopping total of more than $8 million through the end of March, while the GOP candidates combined raised less than a million.  National volunteers have poured in to help Ossoff, while dialers from all corners (including us) are helping to get out the vote.

There have been ten polls since mid-March, and all tell a similar story.  Ossoff has consistently polled in the low 40’s and no other candidate is close.  But the GOP candidates combined are in the mid-40’s and lead him.  There seems to be modest momentum in Ossoff’s favor, as the most recent poll has him at 45%, but that, of course, could be noise.

The X Factor is, of course, turnout.  Special elections typically feature very low turnouts but the significance of this race, which has fueled the money and the effort, make it hard to know.  The GOP has countered the Dems' effort but probably not as effectively.  The fact that they do not have a single candidate who has broken through is a minus.

BTRTN views this as a near 50/50 proposition in all ways.  We believe Ossoff will easily win tonight, and come very close to the magic 50% level but will most likely fall short.  We would peg the odds of him winning the seat outright tonight at roughly 45%.

You can watch the tabulations tonight, after the polls close at 7 PM EST, here:

If Ossoff wins the seat either tonight or in June, it will be a major story.  Certainly it will have to reflect some disenchantment with Trump, but probably says little about the 2018 midterms.  There is just too much time between now and then to consider it a harbinger.  But it will certainly be a wake-up call for Trump, if he needs yet another one.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Trump Doctrine: Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Country. Ask What Your Country Can Do for The Trump Brand.

A number of recent articles have attempted to articulate a "Trump Doctrine." Steve does not think it is all that complicated...

You have to hand it to the writers of The White House Apprentice. They have jammed more plot twists into their first ten weeks than Lost had in six full seasons. Indeed, it's too bad that someone already used the title “Lost.”

In this week’s episode, Donald Trump fully reversed himself on just about every single thing that he appeared to believe way back in, uh, last week. Historians will no doubt come to refer to the first ten weeks of his Presidency as the B.S. era (that is, Before Syria), and he now appears to be in a transition period that future Schlesingers will no doubt refer to as his embrace of weapons of mass confusion.

Last week Putin was his friend, China was an insidious, inscrutable currency manipulator that should be able to easily handle its petulant kid brother North Korea, Syria was some country in the Middle East that he wanted no part of, Steve Bannon was Trump’s dark lord and master, NATO was obsolete, the Export-Import Bank was about to be deported, and Janet Yellen had her resume on the street.

In seven days, each of these positions has been lifted, spun, and landed precisely 180 degrees opposite of where they had been. Dorothy Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan, and Michelle Kwan combined would have had a tough time pulling off more triple axels in a single week.

The White House Haul of Mirrors began with Trump’s stunning about-face on intervention in Syria. Only days before Secretary of Oil and once-believed extinct tyrant-assurer Rex Tillerson had announced that removing Assad was “up to the Syrian people,” which is sort of like saying that revitalizing the coal industry is “up to the coal miners.” It would be hard to send a more unambiguous statement of purposeful neglect, weary disdain, and contemptuous disinterest.

Then, of course, Donald Trump turned on his television, and finally saw what pretty much everyone else in the world already knew: Assad hideously murders his own people at a prodigious rate, occasionally varying his methods to include chemical weapons.  

59 Tomahawk missiles later, Trump enjoyed a brief refractory period during which politicians and journalists praised his Syrian airstrike as if he had actually accomplished something beyond a nifty PR coup at the expense of US taxpayers. 

As fate would have it, Trump was entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago when he ordered the missile launch.  Trump would later relish telling Fox Business News’s Money Honey Maria Bartiromo that he and Xi Jinping were enjoying “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” when the bombs started flying.Unfortunately, as Donald retold the tale of the cake to Bartiromo, he said that those missiles were “heading to Iraq.” Yes, Trump really did forget which country he had launched a missile attack on. 

In what is becoming a familiar pattern, Trump had a perfectly pleasant meeting a major world figure and suddenly everything changed. Everything. China – the country that Trump once said was “raping” the United States through currency manipulation – was no longer a currency manipulator. Xi Jinping would  spend a mere ten minutes – literally ten minutes, by Trump’s own measure -- explaining the history of relations between China and Korea to Trump, and Trump suddenly changed his tune and began talking about how challenging and difficult it will be for China to help us contain Kim Jong-Un.

Trump’s new found bromance with Xi Jinping came at a particularly convenient moment, as his long-distance love affair with Vladimir Putin had just scored a double-frown emoticon.

Putin pointed out that the United States does not exactly have an unblemished track record of proving that nations in the Middle East actually possess and use Weapons of Mass Destruction before showering them with shock and awe. When Trump’s team countered with claims that they possessed intelligence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Assad was directly responsible for the last week’s chemical weapons attack, the Russians dismissed the evidence as if it were a tweet alleging that Barack Obama had wired tapped Trump Tower. Give Putin and Assad credit for learning from the master. It appears that the fastest growing U.S. export under the Trump administration is fake news.

In a week with flip-flops large and small, the final doozy was seeing Steve Bannon in uncontained free-fall, much like the scene at the end of Star Wars when Darth Vadar’s space craft whirls wildly off into space, damaged but not destroyed, ominously leaving the door open for the inevitable sequel.  Bannon’s banishment appeared to represent closure on the internecine holy war between the “White House Democrats,” led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Bannon’s one-man brand of radical anti-government vigilantism. 

The victory of Kushner over Bannon has been explained a number of ways, but all are deficient. 

Some view it to be the triumph of a more centrist realpolitik over hard-right politics of small government, minimal regulation, isolationism, and radically reduced government. Yet Trump’s positions on the Muslim ban, illegal immigration, and most pointedly climate change are still on the far edge of Bannonism. 

Some argue that Kushner’s ascendance and Bannon’s fall is simply a tale of an increasingly sagacious Trump learning that the running for office is different than running the government. This, however, would imply that the guy who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning with an urgent need to spout utter bullshit on Twitter is capable of nuanced insight into the difference between campaigning, governing, or, for that matter, masturbation. Don’t buy it.

When in doubt, it is always wise to opt for the simplest possible explanation, and in the case of Donald Trump, only the simplest possible explanation is even worth considering

The simplest explanation is this: Kushner is in and Bannon is out because Kushner’s advice is making Trump look good, and Bannon is out because Bannon’s advice is making Trump look bad. We have elected a President who truly cares only about one thing: how he is personally perceived. If you make him look good, you have a job. If you don’t, you are history.

Steve Bannon has been behind some of the most egregious failures of Trump’s shockingly inept first three months as President. 

  • It was Bannon who urged a rapid vote on healthcare in order to force House Republicans to go on the record about whether or not they supported the Republican healthcare initiative. Bannon intended to use the vote to develop an “enemies list” of House Representatives to “primary” in the mid-terms. The Freedom Caucus humiliated Trump by calling his bluff. 
  • Bannon urged that nothing be done about Assad's use of chemical weapons, based on his uncompromising interpretation of "America First."
  • It was Bannon’s people who attempted to manufacture evidence to support Trump’s allegation that Obama had wire-tapped the Trump campaign. The ensuing farce – in which the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee was revealed to have been played like a lapdog – shattered the reputation of Congressman Nunes, requiring him to recuse himself from the very investigation he was charged to lead.
Bannon proved himself inept, and demonstrated that he cared more about his extremist  right wing principle than Donald Trump’s personal brand. Big mistakes. 

Three strikes and you’re out. What did Trump do? You guessed it. He went to Jared!

Jared Kushner, on the other hand, has been around his father-in-law long enough to understand that the only thing that matters in Trump’s decision-making is what will make Trump personally look good. 

Kushner’s standing surged with the apparently successful Mar-a-Lago meet-and-greet with Xi Jinping.

Kushner, interestingly, was AWOL on a skiing vacation during the healthcare fiasco. Perhaps Kushner was just savvy enough to see a train wreck coming with no survivors.

But Kushner’s real coup, however, was to be on the side of those advocating a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Don’t kid yourself that Kushner or anyone else in the White House argued for that military strike based on a position of a moral high ground.  Or, for that matter, that anyone believed that the national security of the United States of America was at risk. 

No, the military strike was a PR bonanza for the Trump brand. End of story.

In a single stroke, he could be seen as a macho Commander-in-Chief restoring America’s reputation for tough, fast action. He had a clear shot to spank one of the world’s most evil dictators for an action of unspeakable cruelty.  Most important of all, as his Presidency remains enshrouded in a cloud of suspicion that he colluded with Russia to influence the U.S. election, the military strike allowed him to be seen taking a hard line with Vladimir Putin. At a time when the very legitimacy of Trump’s Presidency rests in a cozy web of connections to Putin’s government, being seen as being highly adversarial with Putin was just what Brand Trump needed. 

There has been plenty of specious talk about a “Trump Doctrine” lying somewhere beneath his flip-flops, ill-conceived initiatives, and poorly-implemented orders. There are commentators who try to make a virtue of his alleged "flexibility," or argue that his lack of a guiding philosophy should be viewed positively... that he does not allow dogma to dictate rigid positions. Puh-lease.

If there is an underlying principle here, it is that Trump values lying over principle. The real Trump Doctrine is transparent: Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can do to help the Donald Trump brand. 

It has been all-too-painfully clear that history – either in the form of centuries of human knowledge, or simply in terms of what the White House believed last week – is of absolutely no relevance to this President as he makes decisions of profound global consequence based on whether they will score a bump in his ratings. It is merely a question of "what feels right" for the Trump brand in the immediate moment.

It appears equally true that decisions are made with little or no forethought about their consequences... what they might mean five minutes, five days, five months, or five years from now. After the missile attack, Vladimir Putin warned Trump not to strike Syria again. Did his people fail to anticipate that reaction? What does that mean if  Assad decides to gas more innocent people? That we will get more deeply involved in Syria, and risk a direct confrontation with Russia? Or that next time, we will simply turn away? Did anyone at the White House think that one through before activating the launch codes? 

Now, all eyes turn east to the building crisis in the Korean Peninsula. 

We have a woefully under-educated, impulsive, and instinctively aggressive American President on one side of the 38th parallel, and an immature, explosive, and instinctively insecure child tyrant on the other.  Ten million people live in Seoul, 35 miles from the demilitarized zone, in easy striking distance of conventional weaponry. If ever there was a time when we need cool heads, deep knowledge, consideration of a full range of options, the collective input and support of global leaders, and extreme caution with military force, this is it.

Instead, we have a son-in-law whose expertise appears to be that of a senior brand manager, working for a President whose only criteria in decision making is whether something is good for Trump or bad for Trump.

Ask not whether this President is here to serve our country, ask only whether he thinks the country is here to serve him.  

The answer is already clear, and it's called the Trump Doctrine.


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