In this week’s newsletter we summarize a medium-intensity week of Trump-related news, then respond to some reader emails and share some reader-provided ideas (and our first-ever reader-authored koan!). Then lots of background links. But first, on this Easter/Passover weekend, we’d like to remind you of one of the most inspiring proverbs in the entire Judeo-Christian tradition: always use conveniently located Facebook and Twitter icons to spread the word about mindfulness-related newsletters.
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THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Tit for tat: Russia ordered the expulsion of 60 US diplomats and the closing of the US consulate in St. Petersburg in retaliation for Trump’s decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats and close the Russian consulate in Seattle. Trump’s move came in concert with Britain and other nations that expelled Russian diplomats in response to the March 4 nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in England, which Russia is suspected of perpetrating. Trump’s advisers reportedly gave him a choice between “light, medium, and heavy” options and he chose “medium.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres worried that US-Russia tensions are reaching a dangerous level. (Certainly they make it politically more difficult for Trump and Vladimir Putin to reach an accommodation that could bring peace and stability to Syria, or to de-escalate in the event of friction between US and Russian troops or proxies there.) But after the US announced its expulsions a Russian spokesman said a Trump-Putin summit remained a possibility.
Affordable housing initiative: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt got into hot water over revelations that he had paid surprisingly low rent for a conveniently located Washington abode owned by a lobbyist. This comes on the heels of controversy over his taking frequent trips to his home in Tulsa at government expense.
Unusable data initiative: The New York Times reported that Pruitt is championing a change in EPA rules that would “severely restrict the research available to [the EPA] when writing environmental regulations.” The off-limits data could include findings on the health effects of air pollution and pesticides.
The art of the goon: On 60 Minutes, adult-film star Stormy Daniels alleged that in 2011 a stranger threatened her with physical harm in the event that she went public with the story of her 2006 sexual affair with Trump. This is not the first report linking Trump to physical intimidation. An attorney whose clients stood to lose money in a Trump casino bankruptcy told the FBI in 2009 that a man called him and said “If you keep fucking with Mr. Trump, we know where you live and we’re going to your house for your wife and kids.” The FBI determined that the call had been made from a phone booth across the street from the Ed Sullivan Theatre on the same day Trump appeared there as a guest on the David Letterman show. In 1982 a New York City official who denied Trump a tax abatement reported a similar phone threat. Both incidents were reported last year by BuzzFeed.
Limited Stormy damage: During March, notwithstanding much ostensibly negative publicity, Trump saw his approval rating continue its erratic but significant rise. According to the Real Clear Politics poll aggregator, the difference between Trump’s disapproval and approval numbers peaked in mid-December at 21 points and by the end of March had narrowed to 11 points. Stats guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight said he wasn’t sure what was behind the rise but “I don’t think people should regard it as a blip.” CNN’s Harry Enten notes that “Trump is still the most unpopular president at this point in his term” but says “Trump is getting more credit for the state of the economy than he had been.” Other posited pluses for Trump include limited but non-trivial appreciation of how tax cuts have increased take-home pay, glimmers of diplomatic success with North Korea, and the perception that Trump, in imposing tariffs on imports, is fighting for the American worker.
Tariff payoff deferred: Trump’s strategy of threatening trade partners with tariffs appeared to yield dividends, as the White House announced a deal with South Korea that sets a quota on its steel exports to America and raises the quota on auto imports from America. (South Korea downplayed the auto provision, saying its imports don’t come close to reaching the current quota.) However, on Thursday, Trump induced widespread mystification by saying he may “hold [the trade deal] up until after a deal is made with North Korea” on nuclear arms. The idea seemed to be that Trump would reward South Korea with the trade deal if it helped get North Korea to give up its nuclear arms. (Elsewhere on the mystification front, Trump aides were puzzled by his spontaneous and cryptic vow that the US will “be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”) Meanwhile, the leaders of North and South Korean announced their first summit in 11 years, scheduled for April 27. And Kim Jong Un traveled to China this week to consult with Chinese president Xi Jinping in advance of Kim’s summit with Trump later this spring.
Trump affirmer affirmed: Trump fired David Shulkin, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, via tweet, and nominated Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to replace him. Critics noted that Jackson has little administrative experience and yet will now run a huge bureaucracy. But, on the positive side, Jackson had said of Trump, after giving him his physical examination in January, “He has incredibly good genes, and it’s just the way God made him.” The Washington Post attributed Shulkin’s firing in part to “months of bad headlines about infighting at VA and profligate spending by the secretary.” Shulkin himself wrote that he was fired for resisting efforts to privatize medical care for veterans.
Census controversy: The Census Bureau announced that the 2020 census will include a question about immigration status, which has not been on the census form since 1950. Democrats fear the question could lower census participation in places with lots of immigrants, thus limiting the electoral power of traditionally blue areas. A Vox explainer goes in-depth on the decision.
Amazon Attack: On Thursday, Trump attacked Amazon in a tweet suggesting that the online retail giant pays “little or no taxes to state & local governments” and uses the US Postal Service as a “Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.).” Amazon’s stock fell by two percent but then recovered. Trump has for years criticized Amazon, its owner Jeff Bezos, and the newspaper he owns, The Washington Post, whose coverage of Trump has often been unflattering.
The Week in Mueller: Robert Mueller disclosed in a court filing that Rick Gates, adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign and a cooperating witness in Mueller’s investigation, knowingly met a former Russian intelligence officer as late as September 2016. Reuters reported that Mueller is interviewing witnesses about why language hostile to Russia was kept out of the Republican Party platform at the August 2016 presidential convention. The New York Times revealed information that Mueller could be using to build an obstruction of justice case against Trump: John Dowd, Trump’s personal lawyer until his resignation last week, reportedly discussed the possibility of presidential pardons for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort with their lawyers last June.
Drilling on hold: A federal court ruled against the Trump administration’s plan to open some 15 million acres of land to fossil fuel extraction, on grounds that the Interior Department had failed to adequately assess the impact on climate and environment.
LOCAL NEWS: ASK US ANYTHING!
We get more thought-provoking emails from readers than we have time to respond thoughtfully to. So we have to choose between responding thoughtfully to a very limited number and responding thoughtlessly to more than that. I’ll leave it for you to decide which we’ve done this week:
Too tough on Rachel Maddow? Last week I complained that the Resistance is overdoing this Russia thing, and I used as an example Rachel Maddow’s implausible insinuation that Trump had fired Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster because they were critical of Russia. One of my lines—“Can’t blame a cable TV star for trying to keep ratings high, I guess”—drew an objection from MRN reader Bo, who said I was “belittling” Maddow in suggesting that a quest for ratings had influenced her commentary.
Three points: 1) I’m not saying Maddow was consciously dishonest—that she intentionally said something that doesn’t reflect her actual views. I think the process of shaping your message to please your audience can work at an unconscious level, influencing your attitudes and beliefs without your awareness of the process. 2) My assumption is that all cable TV hosts shape their content partly in response to perceived audience demand—so if I’m belittling Maddow I’m only doing so in the course of belittling an entire category of journalists. 3) I think the way TV hosts work is just a special case of the way people in general work. We all sometimes say things because it’s socially advantageous to do so—and perhaps without realizing that this is our motivation. So if I’m belittling an entire category of journalists, I’m only doing so in the course of belittling an entire species. And you have to admit: As species go, this one is particularly worthy of belittling.
Too soft on Russia? MRN reader Mark responded to my complaint about overdoing the Russia thing by asking whether there isn’t a danger of underdoing the Russia thing. He says it seems clear that the Russia investigation is “legitimate and a locus for all sorts of crimes and misdeeds that undermine American ideals. It seems to me that our responsibility as voters is to be informed enough to put pressure on our representatives to pursue them as they (hopefully) become public and to support the kind of journalism that stays on this (like Woodward and Bernstein did) in case our representatives don’t.”
There’s nothing there that I completely disagree with. But I would note that almost all of the news about Russia being generated by Woodward-and-Bernstein-like journalism involves revealing things that are already known to Mueller’s investigators. Which means there’s a good chance these things will be revealed eventually in any event. To be sure, Mueller may not issue a big publicly available report (as Kenneth Starr did in the Bill Clinton case). But, unless Trump somehow derails the investigation, any actual crimes uncovered, along with much ancillary material, will presumably become known.
And, oddly, the more of this we know in advance via reporting, the less impact the eventual Mueller revelations may have; old news doesn’t shock people the way new news does. Meanwhile, all the time we spend focused on Russia is time we can’t spend in other ways.
All this said, I have to admit that I can’t wholly avert my eyes from the story. And I assume most of our readers can’t either. So, in The Week in Trump, we try to keep up with the essentials of the story, so that readers can feel free to focus on other things during the week without FOMO.
Wagging the dog: MRN reader E.D. writes: “Suppose Trump goes to war with North Korea or China or Iran right before the mid-term elections as a ploy to help the GOP continue control of the House. Question: would it work? That is, does a warring president’s do better in mid-terms? (I.e. a vote for the GOP is a vote for our brave troops fighting in X).”
I’m not aware of data specifically linking international conflict to performance in mid-term elections, but such conflicts usually do boost a president’s approval rating. For example: George W. Bush’s approval rating jumped from 58 percent to 71 percent immediately after the invasion of Iraq. And there is a correlation between a president’s approval rating and his party’s performance in the midterms. So, yes, unless a Trump-initiated war went badly quickly, or for some other reasons seemed like an egregious blunder, it could probably help keep Congress in Republican hands. By the way, I have an Israeli friend who worries that Bibi Netanyahu, being under pressure from a serious scandal, might be tempted initiate conflict with Iran or Iranian proxies in a bid to stay in office. So Trump’s and Bibi’s political incentives could have an unfortunate synergy.
Want to ask us anything? Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
Some ideas, thoughts, practices offered by readers:
MRN reader Bill, responding to MRN reader Svetlana’s suggestion to try listening mindfully to podcasts by people you disagree intensely with, described his own approach to engaging with opinions from the other side:
“In order to understand people that I do not agree with from the right and libertarian sides of the political spectrum what I do is to locate ‘credentialed top writers’ on https://www.quora.com/ with those points of view. Then I follow them on Quora and turn on notifications for their comments. I have found this to be an excellent way to receive thoughtful well written information from people who view the world differently than I do.”
MRN reader Jordan tweets that, based on Benjamin Franklin’s writings about humility, he thinks Franklin “would have been a mindful resister.” He quotes Franklin saying “I even forbid myself… the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or so it appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly…”
Keith tweets, along with the hashtag #MindfulResistance, a kind of koan: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. If you’re outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Hmmm…
The Brookings Institution’s Ryan Hass assesses the import of this week’s meeting between the leaders of North Korea and China.
After retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens argued in an op-ed that we should repeal the Second Amendment, law professor Steve Vladeck replied that “a repeal of the Second Amendment isn’t going to happen” and seeking repeal could “undercut the reform movement while distracting from measures that are currently feasible.”
The Washington Post reports that, owing to legal challenges on several fronts, Trump may have to disclose much financial information about his business.
Gun manufacturer Remington declared bankruptcy in the wake of depressed gun sales since November of 2016, which industry observers have dubbed the “Trump slump.” Gun sales tend to be brisker after Democratic presidential victories, because gun owners fear tighter gun laws.
ABC’s Trump-friendly “Roseanne” has become an instant ratings hit, and Politico’s Joanna Weiss explains how “The Conners happen to fit the stereotype of the white exurban Trump voter.” Former Breitbart staffer Ben Shapiro complains the show offers “the redefinition of Trump supporters as blue collar leftists rather than conservatives.”
FiveThirtyEight’s Anna Maria Barry-Jester warns that adding a question about immigration status to the census form could exacerbate the problem of undercounting Latinos, African-Americans, the poor, and the young.
The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is “attempting to scale back federal efforts to enforce fair housing laws.”
In the NYT, Siva Vaidhyanathan writes that people who are angry about Facebook should not deactivate their accounts but rather engage in activism to force the platform to change.
A liberal Kentucky sports radio host may challenge Mitch McConnell in 2020, reports Adam Willis in Politico. “Democratic insiders in Kentucky believe he might be uniquely qualified to take on McConnell.”
Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept reports on a 2002 episode in which John Bolton, who is slated to be Trump’s next National Security Adviser, reportedly threatened an international official and his family.
In Politico Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, says it’s a mistake for anti-Trump conservatives to think Trump is “just going away, or that he’s a wild outlier in the contemporary GOP.” Lowry says that “a serious primary challenge is not in the offing, if anything like the current situation obtains.” But, also in Politico, Republican political consultant Mike Murphy lays out a road map for a primary challenge to Trump.
In a report published by Harvard Business School, Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter start from the premise that our political system, revolving around a two-party “duopoly,” has become “the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address” and then proceed to outline a plan to “reinvigorate our democracy”. (Hat tip to MRN reader Jim for bringing this to our attention.)
At talkpoverty.org, Jeremy Slevin of the Center for American Progress analyzes exit polls from the 2016 presidential vote and argues that the role of low-income voters in helping elect Trump has been overstated.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
March for Our Lives organizers are partnering with the Town Hall Project to help gun control activists take their message directly to their congressional representatives. Congress is in recess next week, and hundreds of representatives already have town hall meetings scheduled in their districts. If you’re interested in attending, you can consult this list of meetings. If your representative isn’t holding such a meeting, March for Our Lives has instructions for organizing an event where gun violence issues can be aired.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart