Dreaming A Big White House Lawn Mowing Dream

Recently President Trump got a letter from Frank Giaccio, a sixth-grader from Falls Church, Virginia.  The youngster said he admired President Trump’s background in business and that he was starting a business of his own:  mowing lawns for $8.  He had a proposition for the President — he’d come and mow the White House lawn for free.

white-house-lawn-mowed-02-pol-jpo-170915The President heard about his letter, and last Friday he gave the 11-year-old his wish.  Frank came to Washington, D.C. with his Dad, mowed the Rose Garden lawn, posed for pictures with the President, and said a few words to the media.  The President even sent out one of his famous tweets about Frank, thanking him for a lawn-mowing job well done.

We’ve heard similar stories before, about a young kid with a dream who dared to think big, and found out that sometimes thinking big gets rewarded with big results.  And in this country, we traditionally want and encourage our young people to dream big.  It’s a classic American feel-good story, right?

Not so fast!  No, some people in the Twitterverse pointed out that, by allowing a young kid to mow the lawn — even equipped, as young Frank was, with safety goggles, ear plugs, and gardening gloves, by the way — the President wasn’t sending “a great signal on child labor, minimum wage and occupational safety.”

Seriously?  Have we really reached the point in this country where a young boy who wants to start his own little business and make some money can’t mow a lawn under the supervision of his father without somebody invoking the great National Nanny State that has to control everything people do?  Have we really reached the point where we feel that mowing a lawn is just too dangerous a job for a kid to undertake?

I’m critical of most of what President Trump does, but I’m with him on this one.  Show our young people that they should dare to dream, even about something like mowing the White House lawn, because sometimes those dreams come true.  And stop the incessant hand-wringing and caterwauling about perceived risks everywhere that discourage kids from doing anything other than hunching over their video games in the living room.

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Deal Makers Make Deals

President Trump is a deal maker at heart.  After all, he wrote a book called The Art of the Deal.  So is it really a surprise to anyone that President Trump has reached out to the Democrats in Congress to make deals?

trump_the_art_of_the_dealLast week Trump reached agreement with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the leaders of the Democrats in the Senate and House respectively, on an arrangement to raise the debt ceiling and provide hurricane relief funds.  Last night, Schumer and Pelosi announced that they had reached agreement with President Trump on a legislative solution to the status of the so-called DREAMers — children brought to America by illegal immigrant parents who have grown up in this country and who had been protected from deportation under Obama Administration policies.  According to the Democratic leaders, they and Trump agreed to pursue bipartisan legislation to protect the children from deportation in exchange for Democratic support of border security enhancements.  Schumer and Pelosi say the border security enhancements don’t include supporting Trump’s long-touted wall along America’s southern border; the White House says that excluding the wall was not part of the agreement.  It seems clear, however, that some kind of bargain was struck.

These recent announcements give some people the willies.  Rock-ribbed conservatives can’t stand the sight of Schumer and Pelosi, and the idea of actually sitting down and cutting a deal with them is anathema.  And lurking underneath the discomfort is a concern that, in the President’s zeal to make a deal, principles that are considered important to the conservative position might get thrown overboard.  And part of the subtext of that concern, I think, is the belief that President Trump isn’t exactly a master of the details who fully appreciates the significance of negotiating points, and as a result the President might be getting fleeced by savvy Democrats without fully appreciating it.

President Trump’s willingness to have these kinds of talks shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.  Deal makers want to make deals.  In the real estate development world, deal makers always want to have some new project to promote, and part of the process is to create a feeling of momentum and movement.  The key goal is to get the deal done, and you commonly sacrifice on deal points and financing terms and other provisions to reach that goal.  Deal makers believe that nobody gets everything they want, but that ultimately the deal itself serves the greater good for everyone involved.

Of course, not every deal turns out to be a good one for all concerned, and politics isn’t quite like a big real estate development.  There are people out there who believe fervently in principles, and when those principles get casually tossed aside in the interest of cutting a deal they aren’t happy.  But polling results commonly indicate that the American people want their political leaders to get along and avoid things like government shutdowns because they can’t agree on raising the debt ceiling.  President Trump’s willingness to cut deals may test whether that polling data really means anything.  And if foreign leaders see evidence that just about any deal is possible, who knows what they might propose?

We’ve got a deal maker in the White House, folks, and deal makers make deals.

Pardon Me

President Trump is in the news again (of course!), this time for issuing a controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Arpaio had just been convicted of criminal contempt for knowingly violating a court order requiring his office to stop targeting Latino drivers — a misdemeanor that carried a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a fine.  Less than a month after the conviction, and before Arpaio was formally sentenced, President Trump pardoned him and has explained that he felt that Arpaio was treated unfairly.  The pardon has been strongly criticized by a number of groups, and polls show it isn’t very popular with the American people.

The power to pardon is one of the most interesting, unilateral, and absolute powers possessed by the President of the United States.  It’s also one of the powers that is most likely to provoke criticism — except when the President uses that power to pardon the turkey presented to him for his Thanksgiving dinner.  Through the pardon power, the President has the ability to override the decisions of the judicial branch of government and of prior administrations who decided to prosecute the individuals who are pardoned.  The President’s power to pardon was first established by George Washington, who pardoned two men convicted of treason and sentenced to hang for their role in the Whiskey Rebellion, and over time it has been institutionalized — and used in ways that appear to be unseemly.  President Clinton’s last-minute pardon of fugitive Marc Rich, who had been indicted for racketeering, trading with the enemy, and evading income tax and then fled the country for 16 years, was mired in allegations of intrigue, back room deals and campaign contributions that made it look like the pardon power was for sale to the wealthy.

Trump’s pardon of Arpaio is unusual, for coming so soon after Arpaio was convicted and so early in Trump’s term in office.  Because the pardon power tends to  be controversial, Presidents typically wait until the end of their term in office, as President Clinton did, to issue pardons, so they can’t be held accountable by voters.  Trump also acted without following the advice of the Department of Justice unit that has been established to review and recommend pardons — but of course that is the President’s prerogative, as President Washington established more than 200 years ago.

The ability to pardon puts a tremendous amount of power in the hands of one man.  With President Trump’s mercurial temperament, we can reasonably expect to see that power used in new and different ways while he remains in office.  At least Trump acted in a way that will allow voters to consider his pardon decision as they decide whether to vote for him, assuming he chooses to run for reelection.  And who knows?  With President Trump being who he is, perhaps he will break with precedent on that turkey pardon, too.

Immersion, Or Calculated Exposure

The other day someone asked why I wasn’t writing more about the latest episode in the ongoing Trump Administration Train Wreck in Washington, D.C.  I’m not sure exactly which deplorable event triggered the question — and I guess that’s the problem, isn’t it?

There are so many appalling, clumsy, bumbling, disgraceful, weird, inept, and dispiriting things happening in Washington, D.C. and the country these days that you could write about the misadventures of the President and his ever-changing team all day, every day.  And some people pretty much do exactly that.  They’ve become immersed in the failures and struggles and cheap insults and ill-advised statements and revel in addressing them and talking about them.

Then there are those of us, like me, who just don’t have limitless capacity for outrage and who like to think there is more to their lives than President Twitter.  I care about what’s happening, of course, but with everything else I’ve got going right now I just can’t deal with it 24 hours a day.  I don’t want the fact that Donald Trump is the President of the United States to permanently change my personality, or my outlook on life, or my relations with family, friends, and colleagues.  So I’m going with the calculated exposure approach.  I’ll try to keep track of the latest firestorm, but when it comes to really engaging with things I’m going to pick my spots.

We had some friends over on Saturday night, and as the evening ended I found myself thinking how great it was that HBO is airing the new season of Game of Thrones right now.  Why?  Because it gives us safe, neutral ground for talking about something other than Trump and politics.  Because it seems like pretty much everybody is watching the show, you can have an enjoyable conversation about most hated characters or best battle scenes or regrettable deaths, and nobody is going to get really angry because you identify Ser Davos Seaworth rather than Arya Stark as your favorite character.  It was great to be able to freely talk about something without worrying that someone was going to touch some third rail in the conversation that would leave people feeling upset.

For me, at least, there’s a lot more to the world than Donald Trump.

The Ever-Upward Irresponsible Trend

Am I missing something?  Nobody seems to be paying any attention to federal spending and deficits anymore.

stacks-of-moneyThe Republicans, who used to be the preachers of deficit reduction, balanced budgets, and fiscal discipline, are much too busy trying to distance themselves from President Trump to do much of anything about anything, much less something detail-oriented and difficult, like tackling federal spending.  And the Democrats never seemed to have much appetite for actually considering whether legacy federal programs make sense in the current world, or are performing as they were intended, or are actually having a positive impact from a cost-benefit standpoint.  Expecting Congress to actually pass a budget seems to be hopelessly passe, and continuing to spend more, more, more seems to be the default approach.  And, given the kinds of deficits we’re racking up, and the experience of Puerto Rico, and Illinois, and other states that haven’t paid attention to basic economic realities, “default” seems like an apt word.

In case you’re interested, June 2017 was the first month in history where the American federal government spent more than $400 billion.  You can see the number — $428.8 billion — on page 2, in the “outlays” column, of this dry document called the monthly report of revenues and outlays, issued by the Treasury Department.   And here’s an interesting statistic, for comparison’s sake:  according to this report from the Congressional Budget Office, the amount of federal government outlays for the entire year of 1976 did not even reach $400 billion.  But ever since that time, it’s been an ever upward trend, and now we’ve reach the point where the federal government spends more in a single month than it spent in an entire year only 40 years ago.

You’d think that somewhere, someone in Congress would be up in arms about what is obviously an alarming and unsustainable trend.  You’d think someone, somewhere would be waving that dry Treasury report around and asking why the spending by the list of the government agencies set forth in small type later in the report needs to be ever increasing, and demanding that those agencies tighten their belts or justify their existence.  You’d think that someone, somewhere, would be glancing uneasily at Puerto Rico and Illinois, looking at the federal trends, and deciding that we need to do something to curb our profligate ways before we’re irretrievably on the road to economic perdition and financial ruin.

Of course, you’d be wrong on that.  It’s much easier to just react to the latest Trump Administration dust-up and let things slide.  The only worrying seems to be done by those of us out in the real world whose practical experiences with household budgets and controlling family spending makes us grind our teeth at the amazing irresponsibility of our elected representatives.

A federal government that spends more than $400 billion in a single month!  And nobody is talking about it.

Uneasy Chaos

Normally, I’m of the “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the Legislature is in session” school of thought.  Because I think the politicos typically just mess things up for the rest of us — whatever their stated or unstated intentions — I normally don’t mind if Congress is thrashing around and not really doing much of anything.

But when the White House seems to be the scene of constant chaos, it’s a different story.  In our modern government, so much power and decision-making has devolved upon the Presidency, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, that the perception of competency, stability, reasoned judgment, and careful analysis in the Oval Office and the West Wing is essential.  In short, we want our allies and our enemies alike to believe that the President and his Administration know what they are doing and have developed and are pursuing a coherent policy, and that those allies and enemies should toe the line with that policy or there will be consequences.

161203153317-john-kelly-donald-trump-super-teaseThat’s why the apparently unending disorder in the Trump White House is disturbing.  We’re not even a year into President Trump’s first year in office, and we’ve already seen the departure of his chief of staff and press secretary and now the firing of a communications director who hadn’t even been on the job for two weeks.  I’m not arguing that Anthony Scaramucci shouldn’t have been fired — in reality, he seemed to be so completely ill-suited to serve in that position that you wonder how he was hired in the first place.  But with the constant uproar, the unnecessary and off-message tweets from the President himself, the many personnel changes, the flood of disabling leaks, and the evident turmoil between and among the President’s most senior advisers, you really wonder whether the important things are getting done — and, more fundamentally, what kind of message is being sent about the United States to the world at large.  Does it embolden North Korea and other rogue nation-states to engage in even more adventurous behavior if they think the White House is the scene of bedlam?

So President Trump has turned to a new chief of staff, retired general and former homeland security chief John Kelly, to try to restore some order in the White House, and Kelly’s first act apparently was to show Scaramucci the door.  Now he’ll try to establish some order, stop the constant barrage of leaks, ensure consistent messaging, and maybe, just maybe, rein in some of the counterproductive tweeting activity by POTUS, too.

It’s a big job, but you don’t get to be a general in the U.S. Marine Corps without having some significant leadership and managerial skills, so maybe Kelly will be up to the task — if he can stay in the position long enough to actually have an impact.  I’m no fan of Trump or his Administration, but for the good of the country let’s hope Kelly can make a difference.  The current state of apparent chaos needs to end.

The Handshake Analyzed ‘Round The World

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met yesterday at the G-20 summit.  Presumably they had something important to discuss — but you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage.

gettyimages_810247620-0No, newspapers around the world were more interested in the Trump-Putin handshake, and more specifically which of these leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries got the better of the other during the handshake.  The New York Post even consulted a body language expert who concluded that Trump “won on points” because he used the palm-up approach, which apparently is some kind of domineering power-play technique that allows the handshake to proceed to a vise-like grip.  From the breathless analysis, you’d expect that President Trump carefully considered, but ultimately didn’t use, the “knuckle-roll” approach to really let ol’ Vlad know who was boss.

The reporting on this brief incident make it seem as though these two leaders were behaving very consciously during every instant of the handshake encounter.  Perhaps that is so at the international leader level, but for most people a handshake is a pretty unconscious event.  You meet someone, you reflexively stick out your hand — a tradition that apparently stems from ancient times, where the open hand indicated you weren’t holding a weapon — and give the other person’s paw a basic shake.  It’s only a noteworthy incident if the other person’s hand is weirdly damp, or their handshake is incredibly limp, or they try the bone-crusher approach.  Absent something like that, the handshake moment passes by in a flash without a thought and you get into the substance.

In our modern media, though, substance just isn’t as interesting as trying to read “body language” and speculating about what each twitch and eye movement meant and being distracted about meaningless minutiae.  Next thing you know, the media will be asking Putin what he thought about President Trump’s hand size.

Let’s hope Trump and Putin actually focused on something more meaningful.