At the Democratic town hall debate, Bernie Sanders might play a confidence game.

With just one week till the Iowa Caucus, Sanders has started to exude a surprising confidence. Polls have been tightening nationally, and Sanders is well ahead in New Hampshire. Iowa is more confusing since polls are all over the place, and in any case hardly predictive given the complicated caucus system. Despite this mixed news, the Sanders campaign has become increasingly self-assured and more aggressive in criticizing Hillary Clinton. 

The hopeful spirit of the Sanders campaign can most clearly be seen in the ad it released in Iowa, an inspirational pitch showing the ordinary people of Iowa coming together to support Sanders. The ad takes no potshots at Clinton, but instead shows Sanders as a leader who lifts the spirit. By contrast, Clinton’s “Fighting For You” ad portrays a much darker world, where candidate Hillary stands as a protective force. 

How real is the confident spirit that Sanders is exuding? Confidence can be a game in many ways: It’s easier to win if you convince yourself that you are a winner. In politics, this is not just a matter of improving your own psychological outlook, but also reassuring potential supporters. As he tries to close the gap with Clinton, Sanders has to come on strong and confident tonight.  

June 18, 2018

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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% of whom oppose it as against 27% who approve) but has a support of a plurality of Republicans (46% approving as against 32% 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% 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 the fact 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 pretences of Bushian “compassionate conservatism.” Instead, Trump offers raw, unvarnished right-wing policy goals, which includes using cruel methods to stop the flow 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.

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Donald Trump’s charity is an ‘empty shell.’

That’s how New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood described the Donald J. Trump Foundation in a lawsuit filed on Thursday. The lawsuit seeks to dissolve the foundation, bar Trump from serving on another charity’s board for ten years, and force him to pay at least $2.8 million in penalties. In a series of tweets, Trump vowed not to settle the state’s lawsuit.

The alleged grift is extensive: New York’s 41-page lawsuit accuses Trump and his eldest children—Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric—of violating state and federal laws for more than a decade by using the foundation’s tax-exempt coffers as a personal expense account of sorts. In perhaps the most egregious breach, Trump sought donations from the public at a 2016 Iowa fundraiser for veterans’ groups and then funneled roughly half of the proceeds to the foundation. The Trump campaign then drew upon those funds to make high-profile donations during the Iowa caucuses in the foundation’s name, effectively giving him a political boost for charitable giving made with other people’s money.

One can’t help but be reminded of another one of the president’s Potemkin enterprises: Trump University, which marketed real-estate learning courses using its namesake’s reputation for business acumen in the 2000s. Class-action lawsuits brought by former customers depicted Trump University as a predatory scheme that sought to inflame those customers’ financial insecurities, then offered to soothe them if they paid tens of thousands of dollars for real-estate seminars that yielded few insights into long-term success. (Trump settled the lawsuits for $25 million last year.)

The two schemes differ in targets and tactics, but share a common goal: shameless self-enrichment, obscured by the thinnest veneer of legitimacy, facilitated by Trump’s public image of wealth and success and conducted without regard for ethical or legal boundaries.

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Bob Corker worries GOP is becoming a cult. Don Jr. likes that.

The Republican Party is having a remarkable internal conversation about whether it is turning into a personality cult that has abandoned all principles in order to follow President Donald Trump’s every whim.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker kicked off the debate on Wednesday in a press scrum. “We’re in a strange place. It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” Corker told reporters. “It’s not a good place for any party to have a cult-like situation as it relates to a President that happens to be purportedly of the same party.” Corker has been specifically critical of his party for abandoning the cause of free trade because of Trump’s protectionism, but many more instances can be cited.

Under Trump, Republicans have learned to turn against the FBI, the National Football League, and Canada. Conversely, Republicans are starting to develop a more favorable view of Vladimir Putin and Kanye West. Marco Rubio was recently attacked on Fox News for being critical of Kim Jong Un. If this isn’t cult-like behavior, what is?

As conservative pundits Erick Erickson, David French, and Guy Benson note, Republicans regularly stood up against President George W. Bush in a way they don’t with Trump:

Speaking on Fox & Friends on Thursday morning, Donald Trump Jr. offered an original analysis of the debate. “If it’s a cult, it’s because they like what my father is doing,” the president’s son said. In other words, the cult is working just fine.

The central debate, thus, is not whether the GOP is a cult. The real question is whether being a cult is a good thing or not.

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“Effectively, these kids are incarcerated.”

Several news organizations, including MSNBC, CNN, and The Washington Post, have been given access to Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for boys ages ten to 17 in Brownsville, Texas, where recent changes in immigration policy have led to a flood of incoming children. Boys arriving at the center, most as unaccompanied minors, are first greeted by a mural of President Trump accompanied by a quote from his book, The Art of the Deal. It reads: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

Life at Casa Padre is grim: the boys get two hours outside per day (one structured, one free), and sleep five in four-person rooms, according to MSNBC and the Post. The center serves as a refuge for boys crossing the Mexico/U.S. border alone—a number that’s spiked since the Trump administration implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy on undocumented border crossings in May. 

The policy separates children from their families at the American border, prosecuting adults and passing children off to detention centers like Casa Padre. The Post reports that an estimated 5 percent of the almost 1,500 boys at Casa Padre were forcibly separated from their families.    

Family separation and centers like Casa Padre are part of the Trump administration’s strategy of weaponizing children to deter illegal immigration, as Rikha Sharma Rani has reported for The New Republic.  

As MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff reported after a tour of the Casa Padre facility, Spanish-dubbed screenings of Moana didn’t ameliorate the impression that the center is basically a giant jail for children.