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Chris Christie once had a bromance with President Obama but doesn’t really know him.

As reported by The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe, Christie today made a bizarre statement about Obama: “We have a guy in the Oval Office who we don’t know. He’s been serving us for seven years and we don’t know him.” 

On the face of it, this makes little sense. Living in the White House fish bowl for seven years, Obama has been endlessly interviewed and analyzed. Like it or not, the president has a substantial record that can be judged for good and ill. He’s written an autobiography. Obama has also interacted with many politicians and even palled around with Christie after Hurricane Sandy. Can Obama really be so mysterious?

But Christie’s remarks make sense if you know that he’s pandering to GOP mythology. They partially echo long-held Republican complaints that Obama hasn’t been properly vetted. But they also play into the large set of tropes about Obama being alien, mysterious, un-American. As is his wont, Donald Trump proclaimed these themes more loudly when he suggested that Obama might have an ulterior motive (cough, cough, secret Muslim) for the deal he negotiated with Iran. “It’s almost like there has to be something else going on,” Trump said in a speech on Saturday night. 

Like many of the other Republican candidates, Christie is trying to play the role of the thinking man’s Trump, and making a fool of himself in the process. 

June 18, 2018

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Bannonism without Bannon has triumphed in the White House.

At the beginning of the year, Steve Bannon’s political exile seemed complete. The previous summer, Bannon had been elbowed out of his job as White House advisor. Then, after revelations that he had slagged Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner as “treasonous” when talking to reporter Michael Wolff, Bannon stepped down from his position as CEO of Breitbart. Since then, Bannon has been persona non grata in the Republican world, dismissed by his former boss as “Sloppy Steve.”

But if Bannon now has no formal power, his ideas still seem to be dominant in Trump’s White House. As Washington Post Editor Page Editor Fred Hiatt noted in a Monday column, “Truculent, anti-immigrant nationalism; disdain for the ‘deep state’; disparaging democratic allies while celebrating dictators: These are now the pillars of President Trump’s rule. In his administration’s policy, foreign and domestic, and in the compliant Republican Party, Bannonism is ascendant.”

Bannon himself seems to be on a bit of a victory tour, giving prominent interviews, perhaps with a view toward rehabilitating himself with the president. Possibly with that goal in mind, Bannon,in a Sunday interview with ABC News, made the remarkable claim that Donald Trump has never lied:

If Bannonism continues to have a robust afterlife, it’s in part because he still has some prominent fellow travellers inside the White House pushing his agenda, figures like Stephen Miller, Julia Hahn, and Peter Navarro. But more importantly, the very scandal that got Bannon into hot water is keeping his ideas alive. Trump turned against Bannon because Bannon had suggested Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation might ensnare members of the Trump family. But as the Russia investigation heats up, Trump needs to keep the loyalty of the GOP base. Given that Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016 by distinguishing himself from mainstream Republicans, the only way to keep the GOP base happy is with the red meat of Bannonism: trade wars and immigration bashing. As his administration sinks in scandal, Trump will cling all the more tightly to Bannonism.

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On immigration, Angela Merkel is Trump’s greatest foil.

In a series of tweets on Monday morning, he attacked the German chancellor’s refugee policy for “allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture.” He also claimed that crime was “way up” as a result, even though it actually hit a 30-year low in March. Merkel’s open-door policy on immigration, particularly for refugees, stands in complete juxtaposition to Trump’s hardline approach, which has led to the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the border. Trump has a history of targeting Merkel on the issue, which has led to political convulsions not only in Germany, but across Europe.

In 2015, Trump claimed Merkel was the “person who is ruining Germany”:

The following February, he told the French conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles that he thought “Angela Merkel made a tragic mistake with the migrants.” Warning that if she didn’t fix the situation “completely and firmly” it would be “the end of Europe.” In a 2017 interview with U.K. MP Michael Gove for the German newspaper Bild and London’s The Times, he added, “I think she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals.”

Merkel and her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently agreed to a two-week truce in an immigration standoff that has threatened her government. During this time, Merkel will try to reach a migration deal with the European Union, amidst increased opposition animated by two recent controversies: allegations that civil servants granted asylum to migrants for money and the brutal murder of a 14-year-old girl in western Germany by an Iraqi asylum-seeker.

The number of asylum-seekers entering Germany has drastically declined from the 890,000 people that arrived at the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, but 10,000 still arrive every month.  

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The GOP is the party of Trump on separating families.

If you only scanned the headlines you might get the impression that both of Americans political parties were rising up in opposition to President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents in border apprehensions.

New York Times: “Leading Republicans Join Democrats in Pushing Trump to Halt Family Separations” 

Associated Press: “Family Separation Policy Starts Dividing Republicans” 

Washington Post: “White House insists Democrats to blame for family separations, een as some in GOP urge Trump to reverse course” 

These headlines are creating a false impression that there is a serious Republican divide on the family separation policy. It is much more accurate to say that the party is on board with the policy even as a few Republican lawmakers, usually in mild terms, dissent.  In fact, the policy is popular among Republicans even as it is opposed by the general population. 

A recent Ipsos poll asked“It is appropriate to separate undocumented immigrant parents from their children when they cross the border in order to discourage others from crossing the border illegally.” The results demonstrated a stark partisan divide. “Of those surveyed, 27 percent of the overall respondents agreed with it, while 56% disagreed with the statement,” The Daily Beast reports. “Yet, Republicans leaned slightly more in favor, with 46% agreeing with the statement and 32 percent disagreeing. Meanwhile, 14 percent of Democrats surveyed supported it and only 29% of Independents were in favor.”

Given these numbers, it is hardly surprising that most Republican lawmakers have decided to play it safe by not speaking out against Trump’s policies. 

It’s notable that the most outspoken critic of the policy, former First Lady Laura Bush, has never been an elected official. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse issued a Facebook rebuke that mixed strong language (“wicked”) with a framing of the issue that actually echoes what the Trump administration is saying (casting blame on previous administrations). Utah Senator Orrin Hatch also tried to thread the needle by praising Trump even as he suggested a move away from the policy. 

The general Republican subservience to Trump on immigration shouldn’t surprise us. Donald Trump’s hardline stance on immigration was key to his victory in the Republican primaries. As FiveThirtyEight notes, “In 2016, moreover, immigration may have been the issue most responsible for Trump’s winning the Republican nomination. In every state with a caucus or primary exit poll, he did best among voters who said immigration was their top issue.”

On immigration, including family separation, the Republicans are the party of Trump. Anti-immigration sentiment is increasingly defining the GOP, as abolition defined an earlier incarnation of the party in the 1850s and populism defined the Democrats in the 1890s. Any solution to America’s myriad immigration problems has to start with the recognition that the nativism of many voters is the single biggest hurdle to crafting humane policies. 

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Laura Bush condemns Trump’s family separation policy, but will the GOP listen?

On Sunday the former first lady published an unusually scathing column in The Washington Post condemning the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy towards border crossers. “In the six weeks between April 19 and May 31, the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers or foster care,” Bush noted, “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.” Bush added that images of children jailed by this policy “are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

These are exceptionally tough words for a former first lady, especially when speaking about the policies carried out by a president of her own party. Trump’s zero-tolerance policy is unpopular with the public at large (56 percent of whom oppose it as against 27 percent who approve) but has a support of a plurality of Republicans (46 percent approving as against 32 percent disapproving). These numbers explain why Republicans lawmakers have either been silent about the policy or have only had muted criticism. Even Maine Senator Susan Collins, a reputed moderate, offset her criticism of the administration with an unwillingness to support a Democratic sponsored bill to stop the policy.

It’s uncertain whether Bush’s words can change the opinion of a substantial number of Republicans. She has enjoyed high approval ratings, in the neighborhood of 70 percent public support or more. But surely some of that approval comes from being an apolitical public figure, less prone to taking stands on contentious issues than most recent first ladies. By making such a bold statement against the policy of her own party, Bush threatens to undermine her own status as a widely loved figure.

Also working against Bush’s efforts to convince Republicans is that the faction of the party she belongs to, the Bush family, is now on the wane as a political force. One of the factors driving Trump’s popularity among Republicans is his rejection of the pretenses of Bushian “compassionate conservatism.” Instead, Trump offers raw, unvarnished right-wing policy goals, which includes using cruel methods to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants. In the age of Trump, Laura Bush might be a voice most Republicans no longer respect or heed.

June 15, 2018

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Paul Manafort is going to jail. Will he now flip on Trump?

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, to be jailed until his trial in September on charges involving money laundering, fraud, and unlawful lobbying.

Prior to Judge Jackson’s orders, Manafort had been under house arrest as he tried to raise the $10 million in bail the court asked for. The decision to jail Manafort rested on evidence presented by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that Manafort and his longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who is suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence, tried to tamper with witnesses in Manafort’s pending legal case.

Reportedly, Trump’s legal team and even the prosecution was taken aback by the court’s decision.:

Manafort has been one of the great hold-outs in the Mueller investigation. Unlike others charged by the special counsel, notably Manafort’s former deputy and former son-in-law Rick Gates, Manafort hasn’t taken a plea deal. The open question now is whether the experience of jail will change his mind.

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More and more Republicans are calling on Scott Pruitt to resign.

The Environmental Protection Agency chief’s ethics scandal continues to widen. On Friday, The New York Times revealed Pruitt’s habit of making EPA employees to do personal tasks for him, like finding his wife a job, and helping his daughter get an internship at the White House. Also on Friday, The Washington Post reported that Pruitt asked a public relations executive for energy companies to help him secure coveted tickets to the Rose Bowl. Pruitt got the tickets and took his family to the event, along with a taxpayer-funded 24-hour security detail.

Pruitt’s job has so far remained safe in spite of stories like these, due to continued support from key Republican lawmakers and President Donald Trump. But the facade is starting to crack. On Friday, Trump expressed displeasure with Pruitt’s misbehavior for the first time. “I’m not happy about certain things. I’ll be honest,” Trump said, according to Bloomberg. “He’s done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding. But I am not happy about it.”

Key Republican lawmakers are getting fed up, too. Senator Jim Inhofe—Pruitt’s close friend and mentor from Oklahoma—said on Thursday that he has “had enough” of Pruitt’s controversies, and that “something needs to happen to change that.” Inhofe added, “One of those alternatives would be for [Pruitt] to leave that job.” Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, the chair of the Senate environment committee, which oversees the EPA, said on Thursday that Pruitt will be called on to testify later this year. Pruitt has also drawn the ire of Iowa’s Republican senators, Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley. Grassley threatened to call for Pruitt’s resignation in May. Earlier this month, Ernst said Pruitt “is about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C.”

Back in April, only five Republican lawmakers had called for Pruitt’s resignation: Carlos Curbelo, Ileana Ros-Lehtine, Elise Stefanik, and Frank LoBiondo in the House, and Susan Collins in the Senate. This month, Louisiana’s Republican Senator John Kennedy joined the chorus. “It’s time to find another line of work,” Kennedy said of Pruitt. So did Iowa Congressman David Young, who said this week that he “wouldn’t lose sleep” if Pruitt were let go.

The news about Pruitt has been hard to miss, but House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday that he hasn’t “paid that close attention” to Pruitt’s sandals. “I don’t know enough about what Pruitt has or has not done to give you a good comment,” he said.

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Trump does a joking/not joking routine celebrating North Korean executions.

On Friday morning, President Donald Trump again praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. In the process he also made ghoulish jokes about wanting the same kind of obedience from his staff that Kim receives.

“He’s the head of the country,” Trump told Fox News. “And I mean he’s the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention, I want my people to do the same.”

There was some controversy about whether Trump was referring to just his staff or to the American people as a whole. The context of the interview and Trump’s gestures (he points to the White House) clearly indicate he was talking about his staff.

But as important as the meaning of their words is the underlying attitude. In the same conversation, Trump made smirking reference to how Kim had fired three of his generals, adding “fired may be a nice word.” Here Trump is alluding to the fact that Kim doesn’t just dismiss his staff but also often has them executed.

As so often with Trump-style humor, comedy is used to normalize horrifying attitudes and behavior. In this case, the thrust of Trump’s jokes is to brush aside any concern for North Korea’s horrible human rights record and also suggest that Kim’s “strong” authoritarianism is worth emulating.

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Rudy Giuliani wants a Saturday Night Massacre. Will Trump comply?

On Thursday night, the president’s lawyer appeared on Fox News and used the newly released inspector general’s report critical of the FBI’s handling of the 2016 election to launch a two-fisted attack on Donald Trump’s political enemies. “I believe that Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions have a chance to redeem themselves and that chance comes about tomorrow,” Giuliani ranted, referring to the Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Their path to redemption, Giuliani asserted, comes from punishing special counsel Robert Mueller and FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was revealed to have made critical remarks about candidate Trump duing the 2016 election, including, “We’ll stop it” (referring to Trump’s election).

Tomorrow, Mueller should be suspended and honest people should be brought in, impartial people to investigate these people like Strzok,” Giuliani continued as he talked to Fox host Sean Hannity. “Strzok should be in jail by the end of next week.”

It’s not clear why Giuliani wants to jail Strzok since criticizing a political candidate is not a crime. According to the inspector general’s report, Strzok made inappropriate comments but they did not influence his actions as an agent.

If Trump follows Giuliani’s advice, the United States would be engulfed in the biggest constitutional crisis since the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973 when Richard Nixon ordered the firing of special counsel Archibald Cox (an act that also led to the resignation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general).

It’s by no means clear, though that Trump will heed Giuliani’s dangerous counsel. Giuliani often seems to function more as a television bulldog, barking at the president’s enemies, than a lawyer. If Trump were wise, he’d keep Giuliani as merely a performing creature, not a guide to legal strategy.

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Imprisoning kids is ... biblical?

Speaking to law enforcement officers on Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed divine sanction for the Trump administration’s immigration policies. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” Sessions said. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

Later that day during the White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Sanders fended off a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, who asked where in the Bible it says it is moral to take children away from their mothers. “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” Sanders responded. “That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”

This is troubling on multiple levels. The United States is constitutionally a secular republic, so it is unclear why the Bible is relevant except, perhaps, with reference to the conscience of individuals executing policy.

In any case, the policy of separating border-crossing children and parents isn’t mandated by law but is a discretionary option the Trump administration chose, with a view towards discouraging asylum seekers.

As Yoni Appelbaum of The Atlantic pointed out, the very verses Sessions cited (Romans 13) were frequently cited by antebellum slave-owners to justify obedience for the horrific policy of separating out the families of enslaved peoples:

And of course Romans 13, with its dubious exegetical history, doesn’t exhaust the Bible:

Perhaps the best lesson is that the White House should avoid becoming a seminary.

June 14, 2018

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Does it matter if Trump has a North Korea strategy?

Donald Trump’s presidency has a Rorschach test quality, a series of splotches that could form a pattern if the viewer really wants to see one. One of the unresolved questions of the Trump era is whether there is a method to Trump’s madness. Do his often incoherent and contradictory words and actions add up to a strategy, or is the president just winging it?

Trump’s Korean gambit has re-opened the debate, provoking two politically opposed pundits (the progressive Adele M. Stan and the conservative Ross Douthat) to making intelligent arguments for Trump having a coherent policy. Writing in The American Prospect, Stan argues that underlying both Trump’s alienation of the G-7 allies and his aggressive pursuit of a deal with North Korea is an admiration for authoritarianism. “We’re in the grips of a shift in national identity, one in which democracy and adherence to human rights as stated national values (however flawed in their actual execution) are giving way to an acceptance of authoritarian rule,” Stan contends.

In his New York Times column, Douthat suggests a very different underlying strategy. Trump, Douthat claims, is “seeking to extricate the United States from some of its multiplying commitments, to shift our post-Cold War position away from a Pax Americana model of peace-through-hegemony and toward an ‘offshore balancing approach that makes deals with erstwhile enemies and makes more demands of longtime friends.” (Offshore balancing referring to the idea that America could pursue its goals not by direct intervention but by playing different nations off each other.)

Although coming from very different angles, it’s possible to reconcile these two viewpoints. Trump’s alleged retreat from Pax Americana could easily be motivated not by just by a desire for offshore balancing but by an admiration, rooted in instinctive authoritarianism, for traditional hostile powers like North Korea, Russia or China.

But perhaps Stan and Douthat are giving Trump too much credit. After all, much of the president’s behavior looks more like a flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants con-man trying to keep hustle going than a Metternich-like grand strategist. His decision to pull out of the G-7 communique, for example, seems to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision fueled by personal pique which took his staff by surprise.

It is not necessary to credit Trump with any deep strategy (whether authoritarianism or offshore balancing) to find meaningful patterns in his actions. After all, if he’s working on impulse, his instinctive actions will never be random: they’ll still follow recurring patterns based on his character. Among those instincts could be warm feelings about strongmen and an inbred hunch that allies are actually taking advantage of America. These feelings are all the more powerful if they are inchoate, existing at the level of inarticulate assumptions rather than coherent doctrine. Whether we want to dignify these patterns with the label of a strategy is largely a semantic question.