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THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Kissed, then dissed: French President Emmanuel Macron visited the White House, where he exchanged cheek kisses and warm words with Trump and was feted at the administration’s first state dinner. But in his subsequent address to a joint session of Congress, Macron argued against raw nationalism and Trumpism more broadly; he advocated multilateralism and preserving the Iran nuclear deal and encouraged the US to rejoin the Paris climate accord. He said nice things about Trump himself, though, and the speech seemed not to stifle the two leaders’ budding bromance.
Macron’s mission accomplished? Macron’s most-discussed goal, going into his US visit, was to convince Trump not to exit the Iran nuclear deal on May 12 (when US sanctions lifted by the deal will be reimposed unless Trump issues another once-every-four-months waiver, as required by Congress). Macron sent mixed signals about the result of his effort, but many tea leaf readers, seizing on the more negative signals, surmised that he failed. And even if they’re wrong—even if Trump leaves the deal intact for the time being—salvaging it will be an uphill battle. Trump seems sure to demand, as a price for preserving the deal, that Iran agree to new restraints outside the scope of the deal—limiting its military involvement in Syria, for example, or giving up conventional ballistic missiles that American allies Israel and Saudi Arabia find threatening. And Iran is unlikely to make new concessions without receiving new benefits, especially given the Iranian public’s growing disappointment with the economic fruits of the nuclear deal to date. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Trump Friday—amid much less fanfare than Macron got—and echoed Macron’s support for preserving the deal.
Enter Pompeo: Mike Pompeo, the former congressman who was Trump’s CIA director, was confirmed as secretary of state by a 57-42 vote on Thursday, with six Democrats (all from states Trump won) voting in the affirmative. Pompeo has been an outspoken critic of the Iran deal, something he has in common with John Bolton, Trump’s recently installed national security adviser. So Secretary of Defense James Mattis is now alone among prominent Trump foreign policy advisers in supporting the deal. Unless the retired four-star marine general can convince West Point graduate Pompeo of the virtues of preserving the deal, he’ll have a hard time prevailing in intra-administration debate.
Why this matters: Preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons has intrinsic value, but that’s not the only reason Mattis wants to preserve the Iran deal. This week he said war between Iran and Israel (which would no doubt bring US involvement on Israel’s side and might bring Russian involvement on Iran’s side) is “likely.” And that’s not a far-fetched assessment. Iran, a key ally of Syria’s, is expanding and entrenching its military presence in Syria. This is hardly surprising; Syria, facing numerous neighbors bent on violently overthrowing its government, wants Iran’s protection, and Iran has reasons of its own to expand its military perimeter. But Israel feels threatened by this development and has repeatedly attacked and killed Iranians and Iranian proxies in Syria. The unraveling of the Iran deal would increase the chances of all-out war—by, for example, eroding Israel’s confidence that Iran isn’t developing a nuclear weapon and thus encouraging Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. And the damage that reimposed sanctions would do to Iran’s economy could intensify political pressure on the Iranian regime—and nothing alleviates political pressure quite as reliably as war with a longstanding enemy.
And one more thing: For the US to renege on the Iran nuclear deal—to re-impose sanctions even though Iran has complied with the deal—wouldn’t exactly strengthen North Korea’s incentive to surrender its nuclear weapons in exchange for US promises of enduring sanctions relief and other benefits. Speaking of which:
Korean breakthrough: At an historic summit, the leaders of North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, agreed on the goal of achieving the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. Among the big remaining questions is whether Trump, who plans to meet with Kim within months, can scale back his expectations about the pace and terms of denuclearization. His current position is that North Korea must surrender all nuclear arms before receiving any sanctions relief—and virtually all experts agree that North Korea will at most agree to denuclearize slowly and in stages, receiving economic rewards at each stage. And it may want American military withdrawal from South Korea as its culminating reward.
Sorry Mr. Jackson: Ronny Jackson, the White House physician nominated by Trump to head the Department of Veteran Affairs, withdrew from consideration amid allegations of drunkenness on the job and disbursing pills without prescriptions. His withdrawal came after several Republican senators signaled that his nomination was doomed.
Fox and frenzy: On Thursday Trump called into his favorite morning show, Fox and Friends, for an extended interview that created a big stir on two fronts: 1) Trump suggested he may intervene to influence the Mueller investigation, referring to “our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t.” (Later that day the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced by a 14-7 vote a bill that would make it harder for Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t let the bill come to the floor for a vote.) 2) Trump said attorney Michael Cohen had represented him in “this crazy Stormy Daniels deal,” which seemed at odds with earlier statements. Trump had previously professed to have had no knowledge that Cohen in 2016 reached a deal with the adult-film actress to keep her from going public with claims of a past sexual affair with Trump.
Good news for immigrants who are DREAMers: A federal judge ruled that the Trump administration must accept new applications for the DACA program, which allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children (“DREAMers”) to stay and work legally. Previous court rulings had forced the administration to let current enrollees seek two-year renewals of their protected status but hadn’t forced it to process new enrollees.
Bad news for Muslims who dream of immigrating: Oral arguments at the Supreme Court seemed to indicate that a conservative majority was poised to uphold Trump’s “travel ban,” which prohibits immigration from eight nations, six of which are majority Muslim. Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, alluded to the breadth of a statute that gives the president authority to, “for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens….” However, Justice Neil Gorsuch could be a wild card, as he recently broke with Trump over a different immigration case and, according to one court-watcher, “did not tip his hand” in this week’s oral arguments.
The rent is too damn low! HUD Secretary Ben Carson called on Congress to pass legislation that would raise rents on more than 2 million low-income people in public housing, from the current 30 percent of adjusted income to 35 percent of gross income. He also proposed ending rental deductions for medical and child-care costs and encouraging work requirements for tenants. Carson argued the current system is “discouraging these families from earning more income and becoming self-sufficient.”
NOISE AND SIGNAL
This week brought yet another headline about the turmoil that surrounds this administration. It was on the home page of the Washington Post: “Chaos, contradiction disrupt week of triumph for Trump.”
The story line was simple: It could have been a glorious week for Trump, what with the Macron summit and encouraging news out of Korea. But instead, “a darkening cloud hung over Trump’s cabinet on Thursday” as the administration was “convulsed” by such things as the jettisoned Ronny Jackson nomination and persistent ethical questions about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
There was, however, one difference between this and countless other stories that over the past 15 months have emphasized the chaos and controversy surrounding Trump’s administration: This story raised the question of whether its story line really mattered. Midway through the article was this passage:
But others said the sagas gripping Washington are unlikely to affect voters in the rest of the country. In North Dakota, home to one of the biggest Senate battles, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) said the farmers and energy workers he meets with hear about controversy and are inclined to believe the media and political establishments are out to get Trump. “There’s a sense that if ‘the swamp’ is not busy trying to block the Trump agenda and block Trump appointees, they’re trying to drive down those people on the Cabinet pushing the agenda,” Burgum said.
Indeed. This is the way, for example, Pruitt’s troubles are being processed by many Trump supporters: Liberals in the media dwell on Pruitt’s less-than-epic transgressions because they oppose his policies, or because they want to tarnish Trump.
And, come to think of it, there’s probably some truth to this view. It’s unlikely that the considerable opposition to Trump and to Pruitt’s policies among mainstream journalists doesn’t color their work at all.
In any event, this points to a big difference between today’s politics and traditional American politics. In the past, things like the withdrawn Jackson nomination or the ethical cloud over Pruitt would have been seen as damaging a president, eroding his clout in DC and his popular support nationally. With Trump, it’s far from clear that this dynamic holds.
After all, the battle lines have pretty much solidified. On one side are the people who already disapprove of Trump strongly. On the other side are people who dismiss pretty much all negative news about him as manufactured or unimportant. Sure, there are some swing voters—the people who account for the fact that Trump’s approval rating bounces up and down a bit, between around 38 and 42 percent. But that’s not a very big range.
Among the admittedly less grave implications of all this is that it complicates our job here at MRN. We try to preserve, in a very noisy environment, a high signal-to-noise ratio. Our Week in Trump section is meant to focus your attention on the things that matter—so much so that if you took a mental health break from social media, and even media in general, for a week, you could read TWIT and not have missed anything essential. And if you don’t take such a break, TWIT can, we hope, help you clear your head of all the not-so-important but much-obsessed-over stuff you absorbed during the week. (Plus, of course, we embed a certain amount of analysis in TWIT—often making points that we think are underplayed in mainstream analyses.)
So how much attention should TWIT pay to, say, the Pruitt controversy? Even if Pruitt is forced to resign, that won’t “move the needle” as such a thing would have done in previous years. And does dwelling on the Pruitt controversy actually strengthen Trump’s base of support by nourishing his persecution narrative?
So too with Trump’s various outrages—his unprecedentedly harsh, crude, and persistent attacks on people and organizations that incur his wrath, notably including journalists and media organizations. Dwelling on his outbursts takes time and pays no obvious immediate dividend and may, again, fortify his base.
At the same time, to quit noting these things, to start losing sight of how dangerously aberrant Trump is, does, as the common concern has it, risk “normalizing” his behavior, which could lead more politicians, including future presidents, to emulate it.
All of this is, among other things, a long-winded way of inviting readers to let us know how you think we’re doing. Are we emphasizing some things too much, others too little? We haven’t figured this out yet. So feel free to give us your two cents, on this or any other question, by emailing us: email@example.com.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
Lawfare’s Peter Margulies does an exegesis of questions asked by Supreme Court justices during oral arguments in the travel ban case.
The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor argues that brand new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has “an Islamophobia problem.”
The Hill notes that some Republican senators who opposed the Iran deal now hope Trump won’t pull out of it.
The May 12 deadline for Trump to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran is not“make-or-break” for the Iran deal, says Politico’s Nahal Toosi—but Richard Nephew, who helped negotiate the deal, has a very different view and lays it out in Foreign Policy.
Christopher Green of the International Crisis Group offers a cautiously upbeat appraisal of this week’s Korean summit.
Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, argues in Politico that this week’s federal court ruling on DACA is an example of federal judges “twisting the law to block the Trump administration’s immigration priorities.”
The Brookings Institution’s Geoffrey Gertz cautions us not to “overreact” to Trump’s statements on trade policy, as there is “a growing list of at-the-time seemingly newsworthy policy announcements that ultimately went nowhere.” Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s Rebecca Shimoni Stoil looks at how Trump’s tariffs might turn farm states blue.
In Politico, Ruth Graham says Trump draws more reliable support from Christian media outlets than from Fox News, and has “forged a particularly tight marriage of convenience with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.”
In Politico, Michael Kruse surveys Trump’s business and entertainment career and sees a recurring “splash-and-crash cycle.” He says Trump’s second year in office may resemble the second season of “The Apprentice,” when Trump tried to “goose” falling ratings: “The volume is turned up. He’s meaner. More performative.”
In the journal The American Sociologist, Musa al Gharbi argues that researchers with “strong negative opinions about Trump” and “uncharitable priors about the kind of person who would support him” have produced distorted analyses of what motivates Trump voters, particularly in assessing the roles of race and racism.
Penn political science professor Diana Mutz concludes, after conducting a much-publicized study, that white Christian male voters who were attracted to Trump were not primarily concerned with “their own economic well-being,” but instead were motivated by the “threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.”
In the New Yorker, John Cassidy reviews Trump’s long history of not telling the truth.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has become Trump’s “personal bullying squad,” writes Michael Gerson in the Washington Post.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
In the past two newsletters, we’ve alerted readers to, respectively, Better Angels and Living Room Conversations—two different but similar approaches to building bridges of communication across tribal divides.
This inspired an email from MRN reader Gayle, of Santa Cruz, California, who is active in Living Room Conversations and is on the Better Angels mailing list. Gayle does a comparison of the two that’s so useful and extensive that we’ve reprinted the email in full as a guide for any readers who are considering involvement in one or the other.
And MRN reader Eric writes to tell us about a group called SMART Politics that champions “radical civility” and offers online interactive guidance about how to talk to people who aren’t in your tribe. But this group, unlike Better Angels and Living Room Conversations, assumes that your tribe is left of center. Eric writes, “We have an active Facebook group where people post comments like ‘how do I respond to this conservative’ and there’s a network of people that help out and reframe issues that are useful to progressives/liberals. Give us a shout out!” Which you can do here.
Meanwhile, MRN reader Dylan writes:
Keep up the great work! In a previous email I saw something about connecting readers together. Is there going to be any follow up on this? I would definitely appreciate the opportunity to meet up with people, be mindful, and resist.
Dylan is in College Park, Maryland. So if you’re in that neighborhood—which includes Washington DC—and you’d like to reach out to Dylan, let us know and we’ll put you in touch.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart
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