Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

Trump’s Business Approach

Here’s a surprise:  Congress is mired in disputes about the new legislation that is supposed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (or at least claims to do something to deal with the ongoing problems with President Obama’s signature legislation).  There was supposed to be a vote on the legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday, but the tally got postponed over concerns that the legislation might fail.

President Trump has been involved in the wrangling, and last night he weighed in with what the Washington Post described as an “ultimatum.”  According to the Post, Trump told the Republicans in the House to either pass the legislation on Friday, or reject it, in which case Trump will move on to other items on his agenda.  Trump apparently will leave it up to the Republicans in the House to figure out whether they can agree or not.

the-interview-donald-trump-sits-down-with-business-insiderIt’s an interesting approach, and I suspect that it comes from Trump’s years of working in the business world.  Corporations typically don’t engage in open-ended negotiations, allowing events to marinate and slowly come together — which often seems to be how Congress works (if you believe that Congress works at all).  Instead, because there’s a time value to money and limits to corporate resources that can be expended on potential deals that don’t materialize, corporations set establish priorities, set deadlines, and push.  Once a deadline gets set, it becomes another means of applying pressure to the parties to reach an agreement, and if the deal doesn’t get done by the deadline, typically that takes the transaction off the table, the corporation moves on, and there is no going back.

Trump’s approach to this legislative test is, obviously, also informed by political considerations; he wants to set a deadline so members of Congress are actually forced to do something concrete, and we don’t have the lingering story of “what’s going to happen to Obamacare” attracting all of the media attention and detracting from the other things he’s trying to accomplish.  It’s a gamble, because if the legislation Trump is backing doesn’t pass, he could be painted as a failure in the early months of his Administration, making it less likely that he’ll be able to obtain passage of other parts of his agenda, like tax reform.  We already knew that Trump is a gambler, of course — his whole campaign was a bizarre, otherworldly gamble that paid off.  Now he’s bringing some of that high-stakes, business world approach to the legislative political realm.

We shouldn’t be surprised, by now, that Trump is going to continue to gamble and continue to do things in confounding ways.  Today we’ll get another lesson in whether his approach can actually work in Washington, D.C., even on a short term basis.

Trump’s 2005 Taxes

There was a dust-up yesterday about Donald Trump’s taxes.  MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow obtained two pages of Trump’s 2005 personal tax returns, which apparently had been leaked — by someone.  The two pages show that, in 2005, Trump reported income of $150 million, paid $38 million in taxes, primarily through the alternative minimum tax, and benefited from a continuing write-off of losses that apparently date back to 1995.

48550944-cachedThe White House bemoaned the leak of the two pages of the tax returns, noting that an unauthorized leak of tax returns is a violation of federal law.  At the same time, the White House noted that the two pages show that Trump paid a big chunk of money in federal taxes — while also pointing out that he has no obligation to pay one penny more in taxes than the law requires, a position that virtually every taxpayer heartily agrees with — and added that Trump also paid “tens of millions of dollars in other taxes, such as sales and excise taxes and employment taxes, and this illegally published return proves just that.”

In addition, some Trump supporters used the two pages of the return to refute some of the things said by Trump opponents during the presidential campaign — namely, that Trump wasn’t releasing his taxes because he was a poor businessman, his business empire really wasn’t that successful, and his returns would show that he paid no taxes at all.  As a result, some people are speculating that Trump himself engineered the leak and is using the 2005 return to play the media like a Stradivarius — by releasing limited documents that appear to refute opposition talking points, while at the same time objecting to leaks in violation of federal law.

It’s a messy story, and we’ll have to see whether we learn anything further about the source of the leak.  For now, I hold to two basic points:  (1) if Trump didn’t approve the leak and somebody in the federal government (specifically, the IRS) leaked the two pages of the 2005 return to advance their own personal political agenda, that is both illegal and a grossly inappropriate intrusion into Trump’s personal information and should be opposed by anyone, regardless of their political views, who has entrusted the government with their confidential information, via tax returns or otherwise; and (2) the returns show why presidential candidates should release their returns and why, if they object to such a release, voters should insist that they do so.  The 2005 returns indicate that Trump paid millions of dollars pursuant to the alternative minimum tax — a tax that Trump has talked about abolishing.  The public deserves to know whether political positions are motivated by a politician’s own self interest.

Nascar In The Age of Trump

If there’s one sport that I would associate with our new President, it’s Nascar.

Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump like ballcaps with printed messages.  Both Nascar and the new President like to throw in the random commercial plug here and there.  Both Nascar drivers and Donald Trump need a lot of help from their pit crews.  And both Nascar and Trump appeal to older, rural white voters.  It’s no surprise that, last year, one of the Nascar execs endorsed Trump for President.

AP NASCAR TEXAS AUTO RACING S CAR USA TXSo it seems like a counterintuitive cultural disconnect that, with Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office, Nascar is really struggling — but that’s the case.  Ratings for Nascar broadcasts have been cut almost in half since 2005.  Racetrack owners have torn down sections of bleachers at their tracks due to declining attendance, but the remaining stands still aren’t filled.  TV executives are pushing the sport to make dramatic changes to reverse the decline.  And, according to the linked article, even with two years’ notice Nascar wasn’t able to find a new primary sponsor that was willing to pay its asking price and it therefore had to sell the sponsorship and naming rights on the cheap.

Why is Nascar on the downslope?  The article gets into a lot of inside baseball talk, but I think the reality is simple:  it’s boring to watch cars driving around a race track for hundreds of miles, no matter how garishly painted they might be and how many product stickers they might sport.  I’ve never understood Nascar’s appeal for that central reason — and the generations coming behind mine, growing up with Walkmans and cell phones and social media, apparently have even less of an attention span than I do.  When Nascar people are talking about installing wifi at the racetracks, that tells you all you need to know about the future of the sport.  People just aren’t willing to sit in the stands for hours, drinking beer and hoping for some aggressive driving on the turns and an exciting crash now and then.  Changing the rules of the races and trying to come up with nicknames that make the drivers more interesting aren’t going to change that central reality.

It would be weird if the term of President Donald Trump saw Nascar once again relegated to the status of a small, regional sport — but that may be the direction in which we’re heading.

Politics, Even On The Links

Rory McIlroy, of Ireland, is one of the best golfers in the world.  Recently he decided to tee it up in a friendly foursome that included President Donald Trump.

Apparently, that’s now forbidden.

rory-mcilroy-and-donald-trumpMcIlroy faced withering criticism on the Twitterzone from people who thought that simply playing golf with the President could be viewed as some kind of endorsement of Trump and his policies.  Our culture has grown so heated that even an amiable Irish guy, who doesn’t vote in American elections, can’t go out for 18 holes of golf with the President without facing a backlash and having people accuse him of “whoring” himself and trying to shame him.

Playing golf used to be viewed as a kind of politics-free space.  Celebrities, comedians, movie stars, and sports figures could hit the links with Presidents, Governors, Senators, and Congressmen without being accused of endorsing their political views.  But it wasn’t just American politics that weren’t transported to the golf course, either.  Gary Player was a beloved player in America and elsewhere, even though he hailed from South Africa during its apartheid era.  And golfers freely played in international competitions without people trying to ban them because their home countries enforced repressive policies or weren’t viewed as sufficiently following the prevailing political views of the day.   The golf course was a kind of sanctuary where people could just play golf.

And this was true even at the local level, where people playing in club tournaments or outings might detest the views of the people they’re paired with — but they play with them anyway, and treat them cordially and in the spirit of friendly competition.  It’s one of the great things about golf.

It’s just too bad that the concepts of tolerance and sportsmanship and getting away from the hurly-burly of the world while you’re out on the course aren’t shared by more people who apparently must view everything through a political lens, and hold everyone to rigid standards of acceptable political behavior.  When somebody can’t go out and just play golf with the President without getting ripped as a turncoat, it’s a sad statement.

Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

Our First “You’re Fired!”

Last night President Trump issued the first high-level “You’re fired!” of his new Administration.  It’s like The Apprentice all over again.

trump-scowlThe person being sacked was Sally Yates, who was serving as acting Attorney General prior to the confirmation of Trump’s selection, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.  An Obama appointee, Yates had issued an order to lawyers in the Justice Department instructing them not to make arguments defending Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration.  Her order to the DOJ lawyers apparently was a unilateral decision, and it clearly wasn’t coordinated with the White House.  When the President learned of it he promptly dismissed Yates through a hand-delivered letter and replaced her with another acting AG, who immediately rescinded Yates’ decree and ordered DOJ lawyers to defend Trump’s immigration order.

In a letter, Yates stated that “[m]y responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts.”  The letter noted:  “In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” and concluded “[a]t present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”  The White House, for its part, said that Yates was sacked for “refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”

We’re going to be seeing a lot of this, I’m afraid.  Trump is taking actions that are making significant changes and provoking significant opposition.  Yates is of course entitled to her opinion about his immigration order — but I think her appropriate course was not to unilaterally act to thwart the order, but rather to publicly and noisily resign rather than enforce the order.  That’s the course that Attorney General Elliott Richardson took when President Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and I think it is the right approach.

As for the President, I think he really had no choice but to fire Yates for her failure to follow the policy set by his Administration.  Trump clearly means to shake things up, and he’s going to encounter resistance in the sprawling federal bureaucracy.  If Trump hadn’t acted in the face of the first act of disobedience, he would have given a green light to the actions of other dissenters within the Executive Branch of the government and undercut his ability to make the changes he thinks voters elected him to make.

People serving in government have a right to their own views, and to act their conscience — but Presidents have a right to expect their policies to be followed and faithfully executed, unless and until other coordinate branches of government act to stop them, through court orders or new laws.  It’s how the checks and balances in our tripartite government is supposed to work.  We should all haul out our Civics textbooks — we’re going to be getting an ongoing refresher course with this new President.