Sunday, April 22, 2018

BTRTN: Cohen and Syria, Comey and Korea, Chaos and Hysteria

Tom with the “SaturData Review,” which updates key political indicators and highlights other pertinent info from the week, back after a week’s hiatus.

THE WEEK

We took last Saturday off in our weekly tracking of the Trump Administration, and three giant stories emerged, along with a host of side stories that largely involve the furiously spinning Washington DC revolving door.

We mentioned several weeks ago that with the passage of the spending bill, Trump’s domestic play was pretty much over and his focus would be on the international front, where presidents traditionally have more degrees of freedom.  Trump’s rapid changeover of Pompeo for Tillerson, Bolton for McMaster and Kudlow for Cohn brought him some hawkish soulmates who would be far more likely to encourage rather than restrain his instincts in the trouble spots of the world, including North Korea, Iran, Syria and China.

Image result for image trump aloneNo sooner was the ink dry on the pink slips and the hiring papers did Trump announce, abruptly, his desire to remove the last remaining U.S. troops from Syria.  This sent his administration scrambling for alternate scenarios that would not result in a quick return of ISIS and a ceding of Syrian influence to Russia, Iran and Turkey.  While these machinations spun, reality intervened, in the form of yet another poison gas attack by Bashar al-Assad on his own people, roughly the fiftieth of such attacks.  Trump was immediately faced with clear tension between two of his instincts – the “America First” policy of which he is so proud, the bedrock of his Syr-exit proclamation, and his macho desire to bomb Assad the child-killing-gasser to smithereens.

The ability to hold two competing thoughts in one’s head simultaneously is supposed to be a sign of creativity or even genius, but in this case neither was particularly apparent.  The resulting decision to drop a few bombs for a few minutes on some Syrian assets was the epitome of cutting the baby in half.  Trump dropped just enough bombs to call it a military response, but not so many to put any Russians in harm’s way, thereby signaling to Putin that this “attack” was symbolic.  While that type of symmetry makes for a decent news cycle, the twin aftereffects were outrage from the neocons who wanted a full departure from Syria, matched by hysteria from hawks like Lindsay Graham, who want far more missiles flying and far more influence in the region.  The ultimate response was Trump’s only real alternative, but two things are abundantly clear:  1)  we have no policy in Syria at the moment, and 2)  the only message sent to Assad was confirmation that he could gas his people any old time he wants.

Having made clear to the Russians that there was no serious military play at hand, the next step, naturally, was to try to balance that with a harsh set of sanctions against them for their role as enablers.  And this is where Trumpworld really went off the rails because that, of course, touches off Trump’s third rail – his desire to avoid confrontation of any kind with Russia that can possibly be avoided.  This led to one of the shining examples of the utter shambles of Trump’s foreign policy – somehow, the very buttoned up U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley was allowed to announce that a new round of Russia sanctions were on the way, only to have the White House cut her off at the knees the next day by bluntly stating that that decision had yet to be made.  Rookie Larry Kudlow was dispatched to tell the media that Haley was “confused,” but Haley chose not to take one for the team, and witheringly (and very publicly) responded that she “does not get confused.”  Kudlow’s tail drooped between his legs and he withdrew his assessment and apologized.  The obvious truth is Trump changed his mind.

The second major story is the upcoming summit with Kim Jong-Un, specifically the apparent concession he announced yesterday that North Korea was no longer going to test its nuclear weapons.  This, coupled with a drop in North Korea’s demands that the U.S. withdraw troops from the DMZ, are being hailed as a major thawing in relations and a win for Donald Trump.  Really?  To my ears, Kim Jong-Un simply announced that North Korea has achieved full status as a nuclear power.  There was no talk of de-nuclearization or abandoning any of his current weapons.  The North Korean dictator has played his hand exceptionally well thus far, and I am not buying a “U.S. success” until we see how this unexpected strategic play unfolds.  If you want a history lesson, ask Jimmy Carter, Madelaine Allbright and Bill Clinton how their 1994 “breakthrough” in North Korea worked out.

So – we have a very green President with no expertise and zero capability for thoughtful reflection, backed by….who?  No Secretary of State (and Pompeo’s Senate approval in some doubt), a brand new National Security Advisor who has quickly fired many incumbent staff but has yet to replace them, a U.N. Ambassador who was summarily “Tillerson’ed,” and a new senior economic adviser who has already failed his first attempt to spin news for Trump – four very powerful foreign affairs voices all, in their own ways, stumbling onto centerstage in attempting to guide the President forward.

All this, of course, while there is major geopolitical movement underway of some undetermined kind in North Korea (including a rushed summit) – led covertly by Pompeo in his CIA role with no State Department involvement; China tariff wars in pay, led ostensibly by the brand-new Kudlow, who’s body language suggests he is not a fan of the tariffs at all; ongoing attempts to develop a coherent policy in Syria, where there is none; and an awkward and clearly half-hearted attempt to effect a more hawkish tone toward Russia.  So Trump is managing monumental events in Syria, Russia, China and Korea (and the Iran nuclear package as well) simultaneously, without the benefit of staff, and with no guardrails save General Mattis. We are all terrified.

One would think that these challenges would, as the Brits like to say, ”concentrate the mind.”  But Trump’s mind, of course, is a stranger to concentration, and his limited attention span appears to be far more engaged in the third major story of the past two weeks, that of the very public raid on Michael Cohen’s office and homes.  The raid was conducted by investigators from New York’s Southern District on a tip from Robert Mueller’s investigation.  Rod Rosenstein deftly allowed Mueller to hand the material over to New York City’s Southern Division and let them run with it, thereby allowing two separate investigative bodies to cover the various potential transgressions of Trumpworld.

Cohen, is, of course, Trump’s fixer, the man who knows all – Cohen does not just know where all the bodies are buried, he’s the guy that did the hits and dumped those bodies hither and yon.  And apparently he keeps pretty detailed records of hither and yon, and Trump himself is hysterical about the raid and plainly terrified of what Cohen had in those ten boxes and all those electronic devices that are now in the possession of federal prosecutors in New York.  Mueller is child’s play at this point, and Trump has his lines down pat:  there was no collusion, therefore there could be no obstruction, therefore this is a witch hunt by the Deep State.

Cohen – not so easy.  Trump does not know what he has; much of what might relate to Trump dates back to his career before he occupied the White House; some of it relates to the payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels; and Cohen himself is clearly facing the prospect of a lifetime in prison and could quite easily flip Trump to minimize that and not even think once, much less twice, about it.  Trump’s current lines are pretty flimsy – somehow I don’t think whining about the demise of lawyer-client privilege carries quite the same resonance as the Deep State blues with the base.

On the comings and goings front, we say goodbye to Paul Ryan, wondering if he will re-emerge when Trump departs, be it in 2020 or 2024.  Ryan has always been the young man (still only 48) in a hurry, and the Speakership was not a stop he wanted to make on that fast track.  He took it for much the same reason Trump expelled a few Russian diplomats – he simply had to.  He was seen as the only person at the time – after his successful though losing VP run with Mitt Romney – who could satisfy both wings of the GOP, and turning it down would have been seen as cowardice.  He managed to get out after three years, and left with only one (big) stain – he never called out Trump from his leadership post with any real vigor.  That will hurt him if/when he re-enters the Oval Office stakes.

Others seemed to be on the verge of departure but, lo and behold, they continue in place, most prominently Rod Rosenstein and Scott Pruitt.  The odds were at Secretariat-at-the-Belmont-like levels that Rosenstein would be gone after the Cohen Raid, since it is not terribly clear that firing Rosenstein would cross any GOP bright lines for taking action on Trump.  (It’s not even clear firing Mueller would trigger an impeachment process.)  But Trump did not take the bait, and Rosenstein remains.

It is worth noting that Trump’s current support on the policy side – the self-inflicted void caused by the departures of Tillerson, McMaster and Cohn – is mirrored on the legal side.  He still has not replaced John Dowd per se, and is facing down both Mueller and the New York prosecutors with a very modest legal staff.   It is truly incredible how the most powerful person in the world, facing an extraordinary set of crises around the world and in the courts, is going it alone.  And the latest news that Rudy Giuliani has been exhumed to represent Trump cannot really be taken seriously; Giuliani has not practiced law for decades.  He’s there in the rather vain hope he can put some muscle on Bob Mueller, and also provide a fig leaf PR boost to counter the Trump-has-no-lawyers story line.

Then there was the return of James Comey, the Man Absolutely Everyone Despises.  Comey’s book tour basically confirmed many things we already knew – Trump is immoral, unfit for office and has no use for protocol.  Comey disdains Trump, believes he stands on the Mt. Olympus of moral rectitude, and loves the limelight.  Much as I delight in Comey’s detailed notes and his spot-on descriptions of Trump, all the lurid prose and earnest interviews really do is illustrate once again Comey’s lack of judgment.  Does he really think commenting on Trump’s hair and hands demonstrates “A Higher Loyalty”?  Comey will always be the man who, when faced with decisions of epic import, was guided by neither protocol nor policy, and instead relied solely by his own self-proclaimed righteousness.  And thus he utterly and miserably failed to make the right calls.


THE NUMBERS

Trump’s approval rating dropped a single point, back down to an abysmal 42%.  The Dems continued to hold a commanding +8 point lead (though down -1 pp since last week) on the generic ballot, enough to indicate a flip of the House in November of it holds.   The Trumpometer held steady at +14, with a rising stock market offset by a continued rise in 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 31
Wk ending  Apr 7
Wk ending  Apr 14
Wk ending  Apr 21
Trump Approval
48%
41%
42%
42%
43%
42%
Trump Net Approval
+4 pp
-14 pp
-12 pp
-12 pp
-10 pp
-12 pp
Generic Ballot
D + 6
D + 6
D + 7
D + 8
D + 9
D + 8
Trumpometer
0%
+19%
+14%
+14%
+14%
+14%


POLITICAL STAT OF THE WEEK

They are dropping like flies.  With just under 200 days left until the midterms, there are more members of Congress retiring (or otherwise vacating their seats) than ever before, and the count is at 54 at this point.  And, not surprisingly, most of them are Republicans (37 versus 17 Dems) who don’t want to run in the face of a tsunami.

Incumbents, of course, are harder to displace than a fresh face, so the hype is not just hype.  Rather it becomes self-fulfilling.  Seats thought to be redder than Mars suddenly are eminently flippable – just look at Alabama or Pennsylvania’s 18th.

  
******************************************************

Here is the complete SaturData chart with accompanying methodology explanations:

SaturData Review
Jan 2017   Post-Inaug.
Wk ending  April 14
Wk ending  April 21
Change vs. Last Wk
Change vs. Jan 2017
Trump Approval
48%
43%
42%
-1 pp
-6 pp
Trump Disapproval
44%
53%
54%
-1 pp
-10 pp
Trump Net Approval
+4 pp
-10 pp
-12 pp
-2 pp
-16 pp






Generic Ballot
D + 6
D + 9
D + 8
-1 pp
+2 pp






Trumpometer
0%
+14%
+14%
0 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
2.81
2.86
-2%
-18%
Dow-Jones
19,732
24,360
24,463
0%
24%
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.

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.