The Singapore summit was better than nuclear bluster but otherwise empty.
Part of President Donald Trump’s genius is to create incredibly low expectations for himself and then impress the world by exceeding them. This dynamic was on display in the summit in Singapore where Trump met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Compared to last year, when Trump and Kim were threatening nuclear war, this summit is a vast improvement. It’s obviously better for the United States and North Korea to be talking than to be threatening to destroy each other. Given that North Korea is a nuclear power, normalizing relations might be the best policy choice the United States has.
Still, in terms of actual positive outcomes, the Singapore summit was little more than a vacuous photo op. Expert opinion on the summit emphasizes how little was achieved.
Bruce Klingner is the North Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation:
Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London, and wrote a valuable thread which is worth reading in full:
Equally valuable is the thread by James Acton of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program:
Although coming from different points of the political spectrum, all these experts agree that this summit achieved little.
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.
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”
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.
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 Securityhas sent nearly 2,000 childrento 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.
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, TheNew 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 seriesof 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.