Thursday, April 19, 2018

BTRTN: Comey, Trump, and the "I Alone Can Fix It" Syndrome


Readers who find Steve’s columns to be a reliable source for aggressively leftist rhetoric and snotty attitude are warned that today he is coming at you with a heavy dose of non-partisan disdain. It’s human nature to like the jerk who agrees with you and loathe the jerk who doesn’t… as long as you remember that they are both jerks.

“I alone can fix it.” – Donald Trump, addressing the Republican National Convention, July 21, 2016.

James Comey is an appealing figure. He fashions himself as a super-sized Andy of Mayberry, a man of natural authority and charisma who nonetheless carries himself with a certain gosh and golly hominess that signals humility and perspective. He is quick with a deft sprinkling of self-deprecating wit that creates the impression that he has his ego in check. Spoiler alert: many people who deftly use self-deprecating wit do so because they have figured out that it is superb camo for a truly massive and out-of-control ego.

Still and all, you get charmed by it. Maybe you’re a little too Manhattan to buy his whole act off the rack, and you position yourself somewhere between cynical and jaded, so you fight it… but why? Hey, my enemy’s enemy is my friend, right?  For the last two years, Donald Trump has been every lefty’s biggest enemy ever. James Comey is now Trump’s biggest enemy. So that makes James Comey our biggest friend… right?

And what a friend he has been! Man, this guy had Trump figured out from the minute he met him. Granted, those were less than ideal circumstances, as breaking the news to the President of the United States that Vladimir Putin may have a video tape of him watching Russian hookers pee on each other could not have been an easy ice-breaker. “Nice to meet you, Mr. President! Hey, um,  uh, when you were in Moscow for Miss Universe, you didn’t happen to notice that in your hotel room that there might have been, uh, … you know… a couple of… I think there were two… and they were… you know... uh...”

Somehow Comey intuited from the very first meeting that he must rigorously document his conversations with Trump, and those contemporaneous notes give Comey’s version of events the full weight of authenticity, particularly when he is pitted in a battle of “he said, he said” against the biggest liar in the history of western civilization. It was Comey blasting away in the Congressional hearings that got the obstruction of justice investigation momentum in gear. It was Comey getting fired for standing up to Trump that led to Rosenstein’s appointment of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.

And now Comey has written a book which, while not conveying anything particularly new, is suddenly educating millions of Americans who hadn’t been paying attention about just how morally debased and ethically soiled the current President really is.

So when the One-and-Only James Comey Comey-Kaze Book Tour launched with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday night, lefties were settled in with their popcorn and their remotes as if this were the finale of Downton Abbey. And they didn't bother to leave their seats until Tuesday night, when Comey sat down with Stephen Colbert, the reigning king of Late Night Trump Assault and Battery. Lordy, Lordy – I hope there are tapes!!

Yes, it was immensely satisfying to hear James Comey say out loud that Donald Trump does not have the moral authority to be President of the United States. It was great to hear him say that Donald Trump does not have respect for the concepts of factual reality and truth. It is interesting to realize that an unelected former government official is the most vocal, most senior, and most forceful Republican to squarely address the fact that Donald Trump is not qualified to be President of the United States. And you have to just love the fact that in saying Donald Trump was morally unqualified to be President, Comey slipped in the over-torqued side-bar that he didn’t think the rumors of early onset dementia were accurate. Um, Stephanopoulos didn’t even ask that question. Well played, Mr. Comey, well played.

Give credit to Colbert and Stephanopoulos, who could have spent their entire interviews goading Comey into ever-more delicious soundbytes that could be used as promos for their shows or posted on Instagrams feeds that would break the internet. But both chose to go after the elephant who was very much in the room.

It was James Comey, who, on July 5, 2016, made the decision to dramatically depart from FBI policy to issue a detailed public statement about the FBI’s findings on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Comey began that briefing by noting that his statement would be an “unusual statement in at least a couple ways. First, I am going to include more detail about our process than I ordinarily would, because I think the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest. Second, I have not coordinated or reviewed this statement in any way with the Department of Justice or any other part of the government. They do not know what I am about to say.”

Comey would then proceed to announce that “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

The crucial point is that as a matter of policy, the FBI does not make public statements about its investigations, other than to occasionally note the recommendations it has made to the Justice Department. In this case, the policy would simply have been to announce that the investigation had been completed, and that the FBI had concluded that there were no grounds for criminal charges. Case closed. Instead, Comey – and Comey alone – made the decision to hold a press conference and publicly excoriate Clinton for being “extremely careless” with classified information.Comey, on his own initiative and in a break from all protocol, chose to grab a microphone and loudly trash a candidate for the presidency.

We are learning now that Comey decided to take this extraordinary step out of his own personal concern that the Attorney General under Barack Obama, Loretta Lynch, may have been perceived to be too close to the Clintons to render or announce a determination about the appropriateness of criminal prosecution. Comey claims that he took the highly unusual steps of calling a press conference, savagely criticizing a person who would not be charged with a crime, and not giving the Attorney General advanced notice of his actions, all for the supposed purpose of protecting the FBI and the DOF from being perceived as biased partisans.  

Let us reiterate: James Comey made these highly unusual decisions that went against long-standing FBI policy solely on his own reasoning, his own judgment, and his own criteria about what was most important. James Comey decided that rather than rely on the policies and precedents, and rather than counsel with people who should have weighed in on this decision, he alone should make the call.   

I alone can fix it.

All of this damage, however, would be a mere soup├žon of bad judgment compared to October 26, 2018, when Comey proceeded to use the same basic logic and rationale to alter the course of history.

It was James Comey who made the decision to publicly announce to the world on October 26, 2016, that the FBI had discovered a trove of Hillary Clinton’s emails on a computer seized as evidence in the investigation of Anthony Weiner, disgraced Congressman and husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. This decision, too, was highly antithetical to several aspects of long-standing FBI policy. First and foremost, the FBI is exceedingly cautious about making statements prior to elections regarding investigations that could have direct bearing on the vote. Additionally, the FBI never announces that it has simply received additional potential evidence in a case. Rather, it holds off on any public statements until its review is complete and it is ready to render on opinion.

As we now listen to Comey face off with Stephanopoulos and Colbert, we watch him splay himself in self-pity, agonizing about the brutally difficult judgment he had to make. About how if he had withheld the discovery of the new emails from the public and the information were to come out after the election, it would have diminished the public confidence in the election of Hillary Clinton and tainted the sainted non-partisan reputation of the FBI.

Comey further embellishes his justification to announce the finding by claiming that he did not think that the FBI would have had time to analyze the vast number of emails before the election. Somehow, it eluded his logic that he could have postponed his public announcement until at least giving the FBI a chance to examine the emails. Because in point of fact, the FBI did have enough time to quickly assess that the vast majority of the emails were simply redundant copies of emails that were already in their possession. The FBI was able to complete their analysis and conclude – once again – that there were no grounds for criminal charges, and to do so before election day.

Had Comey simply directed his office to start evaluating the new emails and see how much progress they could make in five days, he would have known that the new emails would not change the recommendation on criminal charges. He would have known that there was no need to make any public statement. 

By then, of course, it was too late. James Comey had lacerated the aorta of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

This man – the guy we are rooting for today on the talk show circuit – is the same man who made an unfathomably terrible error of judgment that directly resulted in the prolonged national nightmare we are experiencing with Donald Trump as our president.

Once again, James Comey had made a highly unorthodox, indeed, unprecedented decision that went against FBI norms because he felt his own opinion on such matters was more important that precedent or policy.

I alone can fix it.

It is a stunning reality that the person who single-handedly and unfairly slandered Hillary Clinton and ripped the Presidency away from her is now being lionized as the great American truth-teller, the integrity of our democracy incarnate, and perhaps the most vital witness in the upcoming battle to wrest the ill-gotten presidency away from Donald Trump.

I hear many people now saying that they’ve always felt that James Comey is a man of unquestioned integrity, honesty, and loyalty to the nation and the Constitution. All that may be true. But if you convince yourself that your own opinion is more important than any policy, precedent, or peer, then the question is whether the truth as you see it is any different from the truth as Donald Trump sees it. Or, perhaps more simply, whether you are a man of high integrity and absolutely terrible judgment.

Let some believe that he is the man of impeccable virtue who will save us all from the arrogant egomania of Donald Trump. I have a hard time forgetting the fact that he is the arrogant egomaniac who gave us all Donald Trump.

What is creepy is that they actually have something terrifying in common.

Both were placed in positions of extraordinary power, and both are granted extraordinary latitude in the wielding of that power. Both seem to believe that when push comes to shove, decades of policy, principle, and precedent governing actions can and should be tossed aside, because they both believe one thing.

I alone can fix it.

I hope you sell a lot of books, Mr. Comey. I actually do admire how you have framed the issue before the nation today as a question of whether the truth can be restored as the foundation for a functioning democracy, even as I find irony in that.

I am pleased that your book tour is probably educating many Americans who have spent the last two years watching Dwayne Johnson movies rather than reflect on the moral bankruptcy of their President.

But I have watched your trajectory from overweening confidence to brimming arrogance and now on a direct flight path to unalloyed hubris. I simply don’t like it when someone thinks that they are the person who knows what is best for everyone else. That’s not exactly the guiding principle informing the democracy for which you profess a higher loyalty.

I alone can fix it.  

I didn’t like it when Donald Trump said it, and I don’t like getting the same message from you, either.

Right now, given a choice among the bold face names in our national dialog, I am getting the sense that the person with the most right-sized ego and the clearest moral sense of what’s right and what’s fair is Stormy Daniels.

Right now, James Comey, you are just the enemy of my enemy. All I can hope is that your massive ego does not get in the way of doing that job well.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

BTRTN: Swamp King Blusters and Dithers in Familiar Pattern

Tom with the “SaturData Review” which updates key political indicators and highlights other pertinent info from the week. 

THE WEEK

In this week’s episode of the hit reality show, “Oval Office Madness,” the president screamed outlandish new policies, setting off titanic reactions; bobbed, weaved and mildly pushed back at Stormy and Vladimir; and shoved yet another swamp-dwelling Cabinet member out on a limb.

Sound familiar? 

The Trump presidency may be precedent shattering, but it is no longer unpredictable.  We are now getting used to the rhythm, and the question just may be – why are we not starting to get bored?  If not for the unbelievable stakes involved with the potential outcomes of Trump’s whims and sins, we might simply hold our noses and ignore it all.  But when nuclear war, seismic economic shocks and a potential impeachment are all in play, it’s hard to ignore the blowhard in the eye of these storms.  Governing the most powerful nation in the world is, unfortunately, deadly serious business.

On the blustering policy front, the Trump method of operation was on full display this week, following a well-worn path.

SCREAM FIRST.  Last week Trump launched a trade war with China by announcing the imposition of tariffs on $60 billion of Chinese imports.  These “announcements” are, at best, actually opening bids in a negotiation, at worst (and more likely) visceral off-the-cuff eruptions, when Trump needs new distractions and falls back on campaign trail promises to keep.  This week, China responded in kind, escalating the war, with each side playing “can you top this.” Trump promptly returned volley with an “announcement” of tariffs on a further $100 billion on China goods.  DISSEMBLE:  While this trade war was engaged, Trump proclaimed it could not be a “trade war” because “we already lost the trade war” years ago.  BACKTRACK:  As with the fully emasculated steel and aluminum tariffs of several weeks ago, which were swiftly rendered impotent with a series of carve-outs for our largest trade partners, Trump and his team are now attempting to engage China in negotiations, and the proposed tariffs may, in fact, never happen.

It’s going to take a lot more than this to bring China to its knees.  Trump has decided to pick a fight with a man who has just been declared, essentially, dictator for life, and with a country whose patience knows no bounds.  My favorite “long game” China story is when 1970’s-era Foreign Minister Chou En-Lai was asked his view of the French Revolution, which at that point was nearly 200 years in the past. “Too soon to tell” was his legendary reply.  The Chinese will not blink, especially to a highly-unpopular live-in-the-moment U.S. president who will likely be gone in less than three years.

Image result for zig zag chart linesFinancial markets cannot tell the difference between bluster and final policy, nor can buyers and sellers of the goods involved, and both the Dow and soybean prices (just to pick one product) gyrated wildly.  Markets typically like a calm, steady hand at the ­­tiller, and this is, well, not that.  The Dow’s daily change this past week was:  down 459, up 389, up 231, up 241 and finally, down 572.

The scream/dissemble/backtrack m.o. was also on display with Trump’s sudden “announcement” that he wanted an immediate withdrawal of troops from Syria.  This threw the high command into high alert and instantly became a test of General James Mattis’ vaunted survival skills, he being the Last General in Good Standing, seemingly possessed with a unique ability to stay out of the press, on Trump’s good side, and influential, a trifecta that has eluded virtually everyone else in Trumpworld.

Sure enough, the airwaves filled with hysteria, policymakers began the pushback process, Trump yielding and lesser alternatives emerging.  Where this will actually go remains a mystery, because sometimes Trump never backs downs (Paris Accords) and actually follows through, and other times he backs down entirely (DACA and gun control), and at other times he takes what he can get, no matter how stupid (see: Obamacare repeal and replace).  Some might call this “good negotiating skills” but this ain’t real estate.  In this, the real world, Trump’s words cause markets to move, prices to gyrate, soldiers to worry and an enormous amount of real pain. 

Trump also “announced” that he will order military troops to protect our southern border to combat illegal immigration, yet another example of the Trump method in play.  And while he was at it, he claimed that migrant women from Central America were “being raped at levels nobody has ever seen before,” yet another baseless claim.

And finally on the policy front, Trump continued his private war with Jeff Bezos by continually hinting that he is going to do something about Amazon’s tax status and spreading misinformation about Amazon’s impact on the USPS.  This is, of course, more of a personal vendetta since Bezos (not Amazon) owns the Washington Post, and has in fact revitalized the Post by investing in, of all things, investigative journalism.  The markets were not terribly fond of these loose-lipped threats either.  This was a bit of piling on with respect to tech stocks, which were already reeling with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

All of this is giving Trump’s strongest story – the economic vitality on his watch – a beating.  His advisers want him to stick to the steady drumbeat of a message of prosperity, a rising stock market, tax cuts and deregulation.  Trump himself is undercutting that story with the tariff wars, the Amazon attack and the resultant market volatility.  The tax message boost, though, has clearly been underwhelming, having been abandoned as a talking point in the Pennsylvania 18th special election due to its lack of resonance.  The just-announced monthly jobs report – with only 103,000 jobs added – was also a negative.  And Trump has finally figured out that the spending bill he signed into law last month is now viewed as a huge Democratic win, with all sorts of domestic spending increases and virtually nothing for his Wall.  Trump’s trump card is clearly a weaker hand than it was just one month ago, and the tariff and Bezos wars just may be his search for replacements.

Meanwhile, Swampland was teeming, as the never-ending saga of the Worst-Administration-Since-Warren-Harding’s filled the news, the focus shifting to EPA head Scott Pruitt.  His appetite for political perks and largesse may be second only to, um, Tom Price, or perhaps Ben Carson or maybe Ryan Zinke.  Perhaps Trump feels like Percy Garris in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” as in:  “Morons.  I’ve got morons on my team.”  But actually, Trump, the Washington Emolument himself, does not feel that way.  When asked about Pruitt, Trump issued a W-esque-heckuva-job-Brownie declaration about Pruitt: “I think he’s done a fantastic job.  I think he’s done an incredible job.”  And then he floated Pruitt as a potential replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  Finally, when this went over rather poorly, Trump hurriedly dispatched Sarah Sanders to make clear that Pruitt was now in the hot seat.

Trump’s usual bluster pattern has, of course, two exceptions.  One is Vladimir Putin, for whom he has unrelenting praise and admiration; he has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything to upset the man.  Trump finally caved in the last weeks by taking on Putin, expelling some spies Russian diplomats in the wake of the spy killing in the UK, and then imposing sanctions on some oligarchs – two “must do’s” that Trump could not avoid (and he managed to soften these blows by inviting Putin to the White House). 

The other exception is Stormy Daniels and the other wronged women who are suing him, for whom Trump has been uncharacteristically (to say the least) quiet. This week, though, he finally spoke, denying any knowledge of the fact that Michael Cohen paid $130,000 of his own money to keep Stormy quiet, putting Cohen in the rather implausible position of paying her that money for personal reasons (rather than the obvious reason, to protect Trump).  This, of course, begs the question, why on earth would he do that?

On the plus side for Trump, word emerged that Robert Mueller had notified Trump’s lawyers that he was not a “target” of the investigation.  But the bad news for Trump was that Mueller said he is indeed a “subject” of the investigation; his status could still change to “target” anytime; Mueller clearly is finding new veins to tap (the Russian oligarch angle this week); and the investigation is showing no sign of abating soon.

And yet Trump’s approval rating marches on at 42%, too high to support impeachment and conviction, but too low to re-elect.

THE NUMBERS

Trump’s approval rating was unchanged in the last week, holding at 42%.  The Dems continued to hold a commanding, and rising, +8 point lead on the generic ballot, enough to indicate a flip of the House in September of it held.   The Trumpometer held steady at +14, despite a volatile market and ever rising gas prices.  The +14 means that our five economic indicators – the Dow, the unemployment rate, the price of gas, Consumer Confidence and the GDP -- are, on average, up +14% since Trump’s Inaugural in January, 2017. (The full chart and methodology explanations are at the bottom of this article.) 

SaturData Review
Jan 2017   Inaug.
Jan 2018 Year 1
Last 4 Weeks
Wk ending   Mar 17
Wk ending   Mar 24
Wk ending   Mar 31
Wk ending  Apr 6
Trump Approval
48%
41%
42%
42%
42%
42%
Trump Net Approval
+4 pp
-14 pp
-13 pp
-12 pp
-12 pp
-12 pp
Generic Ballot
D + 6
D + 6
D + 7
D + 6
D + 7
D + 8
Trumpometer
0%
+19%
+13%
+11%
+14%
+14%


POLITICAL STAT OF THE WEEK

Here is a map that shows soybean production in the U.S., side by side with the Trump-Clinton 2016 electoral map.  The point: there are surely many, many heartland Trump-supporting soybean farmers who are deeply unhappy over the China tariffs on soybeans. China is the top buyer of U.S. soybeans at $14 billion per annum.  Soybeans prices dropped 4% on the news of the tariffs, and Purdue economists estimate that a 30% tariff on soybeans could slice China’s soybean acquisition from the U.S. by a whopping 71%. 


Image result for soybean production in usa mapImage result for trump clinton 2016 electoral map



*******************************************************
Here is the complete SaturData chart with accompanying methodology explanations:

SaturData Review
Jan 2017   Post-Inaug.
Wk ending   Mar 31
Wk ending  April 6
Change vs. Last Wk
Change vs. Jan 2017
Trump Approval
48%
42%
42%
0 pp
-6 pp
Trump Disapproval
44%
54%
54%
0 pp
-10 pp
Trump Net Approval
+4 pp
-12 pp
-12 pp
0 pp
-16 pp






Generic Ballot
D + 6
D + 7
D + 8
+1 pp
+2 pp






Trumpometer
0%
+14%
+14%
-2 pp
+14 pp
Unemployment Rate
4.7
4.1
4.1
0%
13%
Consumer Confidence
114
128
128
0%
12%
Price of Gas
2.44
2.72
2.82
-4%
-16%
Dow-Jones
19,732
24,103
23,933
-1%
21%
Most recent GDP
2.1
2.9
2.9
0%
38%

Methodology notes:

BTRTN calculates our weekly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot, we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP.