Monday, December 3, 2018

BTRTN: When Donald Trump Became "Individual 1"

Tom with the BTRTN November 2018 Month in Review.

THE MONTH

November was an astonishingly full month, crammed with comings and goings, inflection points and crises galore, from the midterms to the Mideast, the environment, gun violence, immigration, freedom of the press, the domestic and global economy and even threats of war. 

Image result for individual 1The month began with an underqualified sycophant, Matthew Whitaker, beginning his tenure as Attorney General, and ended with the death of perhaps our most qualified president, and one of the most dignified, George H. W. Bush.  The contrast between that gentleman and statesman, our 41st president, and the man who installed Whitaker as AG, our 45th, could not be sharper.

And yet through all of this, history may record the month simply as the time when President Trump moved firmly into the crosshairs of the Mueller investigation and became, ominously, “Individual 1.”  We’ll see if a smoking gun emerges, but certainly enough smoke is billowing at this point to ensure a fire is raging.  That fire is epitomized by a simple query:  if there was no crime to begin with, why have so many Trump officials lied about their ties to Russia?

Going back to the beginning of this epic month, the midterms dominated the first week, and they were every bit the verdict on Trump that was anticipated.  There was a true “blue wave” in the House; the final tally (pending three races that are still outstanding) will show the Dems with a “net flip” of 40-ish seats to take control of subpoena power the House.  The Dems faced, of course, a horrendous “map” in the Senate elections, with virtually no chance to gain control, and they lost two seats in red states that they never should have held to begin with, Missouri and Indiana.  They won both in 2012 when the GOP nominated buffoons who made outrageous gaffes on the abortion issue; the GOP put forth more respectable candidates this year, and they took back both seats.  The GOP also flipped another red state, North Dakota (largely due to incumbent Dem Heidi Heitkamp taking a principled but politically deadly “no” vote on Kavanaugh), and also Florida in an incredibly close race.  But the Dems offset those defeats by flipping Nevada and Arizona, thus netting out with a loss of two seats and a 53/47 GOP/Dem split.  And the Dems made huge progress at the state level, flipping a net +7 Governorships, leaving the state houses now with 23 Dems and 27 Republicans.

Trump simultaneously sought to claim “victory” in the midterms (with limited evidence, per the above) and deflect attention by firing AG Jeff Sessions the very next day, thrusting Whitaker into the interim chair ahead of the logical choice, Rod Rosenstein.  Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, would not have appeared on anyone’s top 50 (or top 500?) list of candidates, but his vociferous public opposition to the Mueller investigation was the only credential that mattered to Trump.  Whitaker was immediately called on to recuse himself, as his public statements cannot be squared with exercising impartial oversight of the investigation, but he brushed that off.  In his first month, however, Whitaker stood aside and signed off on the Mueller bombshells to come.  (We’ll see whether he does the same if Mueller issues Trump a subpoena.)

That same day, Trump upbraided CNN’s Jim Acosta for pursuing a typically dogged line of questioning (the norm for any reporter) in a rare Trump press conference, and later stripped Acosta’s White House press pass.  Trump called Acosta, without a trace of irony, “a rude, terrible person.”  CNN and Acosta sued, and were backed by other news outlets, including FOX – and ultimately won a sorely needed victory for the independent press, with Acosta returning to his beat.

The Whitaker/Acosta cycle was quickly eclipsed by twin demons that always displace political talk:  gun violence (the shootings in Thousand Oaks, California) and environmental disaster (the fires that ravaged that same town the very next day, and the devastating Camp Fire later in the month in Northern California).  These types of tragedies pose political problems for the GOP, putting them on their heels with respect to their laissez-faire regulatory approach to gun control and climate change.  The fires were a timely prologue to the second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, issued by Trump’s own government later in the month.  This is a congressionally mandated report, and this one took the novel approach of demonstrating the economic consequences of unchecked climate change, declaring 10% of the U.S. economy is at risk.  Trump, of course, uses economic growth as his rationale for his intensive deregulation efforts, and in response he did the only thing he could do to control the report’s impact – he released it on the Friday after Thanksgiving to minimize its exposure, and dismissed it with a wave of a hand. He actually said this:  “You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean.”  A record clean?

But in the weeks between the SoCal fire and the report, there were plenty more headlines.  The CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had directly ordered the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Turkish Embassy last month.  Trump dismissed the findings and refused do much more than a wrist slap of his strongest Mideast ally, frustrating politicos on both sides of the aisle.  This is the umpteenth episode in the saga of Trump’s man-crushes on murderous strongmen, with MBS joining Kim Jong Un, the Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte, China’s Xi Jinping, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Turkey’s Recep Erdogen and, of course, Vladimir Putin of Russia on the list of those Trump adores.

On the other hand, Trump is quick to lacerate allies like Chief Justice John Roberts, who finally defended the judicial system in the face of Trump scorn, after Trump lashed out at the 9th Circuit over their opposition to Trump’s brazen immigration policies. 

Also in the news, General Motors announced massive factory shutdowns and layoffs right in the heartland, eviscerating Trump’s promises of industrial revival, a black mark on his economic record that exposed the shallowness of his own might in the wake of powerful economic forces.  Seems those tariffs he imposed on aluminum and steel had a direct hit – on GM, that is, and in the coming year there will be aftershocks to the many GM suppliers.  And did we mention the potential death knell of Nafta; more Trump machinations to deny asylum hearings to immigrants fleeing the poverty and crime of their homelands; or the potential government shutdown that may occur in a matter of weeks over the Wall? Plus the rising tensions in the Kersh Strait, where Russia attacked three Ukraine naval vessels -- again without a proper Trump condemnation. 

And yet, with all this, it was the Mueller flurry at the end of the month that set the tone for the immediate future.  Mueller first announced the withdrawal of the Paul Manafort plea bargain, because the man simply kept on lying; Trump, for his part, refused to take a Manafort pardon “off the table” – the dangling pardon becoming yet another exhibit in the obstruction of justice portfolio.  Mueller then announced that Michael Cohen had joined the parade of convicted liars.  Cohen, in his plea, revealed that he had lied about the timing of the conclusion of negotiations with Russia about a potential Trump hotel deal in Moscow; the talks continued well into 2016, at odds with Trump’s public pronouncements.  And, more to the point, well into the timeframe when the GOP was working on its convention platform -- with the Trumpsters fighting hard for Russia-friendly planks.  Perhaps more concerning for Trump was the disclosure that Cohen has thus far spent more than 70 hours in interviews with Mueller, in full cooperation with the investigation, with more to come.  Seventy hours with Michael Cohen on the topic of Donald Trump’s darkest secrets.  Stay tuned.

We don’t have to tax our imaginations to know what George H.W. Bush thought of all this in his final days.  The Bush Dynasty verdict on Trump has long been clear.  And if you did not know this fun fact, it is all you need to know:  George H. W. Bush voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Much has been said about George H.W. Bush being the last of his kind, but I would not go that far.  One could make a pretty good case that, say, John Kerry fit the same mold:  patrician, Ivy League war hero, gilded political resume, globetrotting statesman.  We will need more of them, in both parties, to erase the stain of these times, and also to prove that there is a place in Washington, D.C. for decency and humanity.

But right now, at the end of November, 2018, we have lost one of those types, and we are stuck with this joker, our presidency held hostage to the pretender now known as “Individual 1.”


TRUMP APPROVAL RATING

Trump’s approval rating remained at 44% for the month, remaining in the same 40-45% zone it has occupied since the second month of his presidency.  It remains to be seen if there is any jolting event that changes a material number of minds in one direction of another, but thus far the flip-flopping has been among a stunningly small group of Americans.  The rest of us appear to be set in concrete, and it is the entrenched support of Trump followers that has paralyzed the weak-kneed Republican leaders who clearly despise the man and what he is doing.  But with an 85-90% approval rating among GOP rank-and-file, only moral courage would spark a GOP revolt.  And that appears to be not only in short supply, but non-existent.

TRUMP MONTHLY APPROVAL RATING

2017
2018

Ja
Jl
J
F
M
A
M
J
J
A
S
O
N
Approve
48
40
42
43
42
42
45
43
43
43
43
44
44
Disapprove
46
56
55
54
54
54
52
53
53
53
53
52
53
Net
2
-16
-13
-11
-13
-12
-7
-9
-10
-9
-10
-8
-8


TRUMPOMETER

The “Trumpometer” increased slightly to +26 in November, up from +23 in October, driven by a sharp drop in the price of gasoline, from $2.90 to $2.63 , with other measures more or less stable (though the stock market showed marked volatility).  The +26 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +26% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration (with more explanation below, if needed).

TRUMPOMETER
End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 10/31/2018
Trump 11/30/2018
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)

25
-53
0
24
26
26%
  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
3.7
3.7
21%
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
138
136
19%
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.90
2.63
-8%
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
25,155
25,538
29%
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
3.5
3.5
67%

Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly 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 (which is not polled in this post-election time period), 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, on an average percentage change basis... 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. 


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