Who Is Left to Say No to Trump?

Kirstjen Nielsen is the latest one out of the president’s spiraling cabinet who expressed his cruelty but wouldn’t go as far as he wanted.

There’s no reason to mourn Kirstjen Nielsen’s departure from the Department of Homeland Security. She was an immigration hard-liner working aggressively to carry out President Trump’s restrictionist agenda. She spearheaded efforts to crack down on migrants and asylum seekers. She requested military assistance at the border. She limited the number of people who can legally present for asylum at ports of entry. And she vastly increased the number of immigrants in detention.

She also carried out the president’s “zero tolerance” policy, resulting in the separation of thousands of families at our border with Mexico. Many parents are still searching for their children.

But there were limits to Nielsen’s embrace of Trump’s immigration policies. She pushed back on his demands to break the law to stop migrants from entering the country, according to The Times, and repeatedly reminded the president of “the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.”

In almost any other administration, this would be unremarkable. It simply means Nielsen took her job and its legal obligations seriously — what we would expect from any civil servant. But Trump is unusual among modern presidents for his routine elevation of people who lack that basic sense of public ethics. If regular pressure to break the law was part of Nielsen’s decision to leave the administration, then her departure illustrates how any belief in the public good, no matter how slight, is incompatible with working for this president, even if you share his views.

This was evident from previous resignations and firings. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, seemed to share the president’s skepticism of the department, carrying out an agenda meant to shrink its influence. But when Trump wanted to break the lawwhich, Tillerson said in an interview after leaving the administration, was “often” — Tillerson would push back, unwilling to completely subordinate himself to the president’s will. “I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”

The president’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, faced similar pressures after he recused himself from any investigations related to the prospect of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. Sessions took that step after The Washington Post revealed his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign — the kind of contact he had denied during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Trump was furious, which grew into rage after the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Robert Mueller special counsel. Trump reportedly berated Sessions in the Oval Office — which the attorney general called his “most humiliating experience in decades of public life” — and complained that the recusal was “unfair.”

Trump wanted Sessions to derail the Russia investigation and protect him from scrutiny, essentially making himself above the law. And he spent much of 2018 pressuring the attorney general to do just that, either attacking him in public or cajoling him in private. Sessions, who shared Trump’s politics but not his complete contempt for the rule of law, wouldn’t budge.

The overall pattern is clear. Trump wants to act with impunity, breaking the law if he needs or even just wants to. His appointees, who share his goals but not his methods, resist. He scolds and attacks them until they resign, replacing them with loyalists who may actually bend to his will.

Rex Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo, then serving as director of the C.I.A. Unlike Tillerson, who attempted to contain Trump’s worst instincts, Pompeo has been willing to say or do nearly anything to stay in Trump’s favor. It’s why he would echo the president’s widely criticized flattery of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government.

Trump says that Kevin McAleenan, until now the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, will take over for Nielsen as acting secretary of Homeland Security. Like Nielsen, McAleenan backs the president’s harsh border policies. He defended border patrol agents after they used tear gas on hundreds of migrants, including women and children, who tried to enter the United States near Tijuana, Mexico. Some attorneys say it’s unclear if Trump can elevate McAleenan, since the laws regarding succession point to under secretary for management Claire Grady as next-in-line as acting director.

 

The Political Forces Behind Rex Tillerson’s Firing

a third, run out of a suite of well-appointed offices on M Street in Washington. Founded by neoconservative journalist Clifford May just after 9/11, the non-profit Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has emerged as perhaps the most powerful outside influencer of the Trump White House today.

FDD is notorious: a self-styled “non-partisan policy institute,” the non-profit organization is funded primarily by right-wing supporters of Israel, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

.. Over the nearly two decades since its founding, FDD has

  • promoted the Iraq War,
  • banged the drum for an attack on Syria,
  • opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran,
  • extolled the virtues of Benjamin Netanyahu, and, at the beginning of this decade,
  • launched a crusade that targeted the tiny Persian Gulf country of Qatar where the U.S. maintains an airbase.

.. Tillerson, it turns out, was not only blindsided by the embargo, but, as was reported in these pages last June, suspected that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had known of the UAE’s plans, failed to notify him, and instead urged the president to endorse the UAE initiative, which Trump did. Tillerson was not only shocked, he was angry. “Rex put two-and-two together,” a close associate of Tillerson told TAC at the time, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid [Kushner] was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. [UAE ambassador to the U.S.] Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.”

.. Tillerson’s efforts, while prodigious, failed to heal the rift between Qatar and its neighbors, but it clearly backfooted the anti-Qatar coalition, who’d hoped to pressure their neighbor into ending its relations with Iran, isolate Turkey (a strong Qatar supporter), and shutter the Doha-based Al Jazeera television network.

.. only deepened the uneasy alliance of forces arrayed against him. Those forces, according to emails leaked in early March by the BBC, now included Erik Prince sidekick Elliott Broidy, a U.S. businessman and Trump campaign donor with deep business ties to the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed. According to the emails, Broidy met with Trump in October and told him that Tillerson was “performing poorly and should be fired at a political convenient time.” The emails described Tillerson as “weak” and “a tower of jello” who needs to be “slammed.”

.. While Tillerson’s demise can be dated to the moment it was reported that he called the president a “moron” back in October, the clock actually started ticking the previous June, when Tillerson decided he would work to reverse the UAE-led embargo against Qatar. Which is why, within hours of Trump’s announcement that Tillerson was being shown the door, his enemies in the Gulf States held a mini-celebration. Among the celebrants was Abdulkhalez Abdullaa, a prominent UAE political science professor, who insinuated that his country could take credit for Tillerson’s demise. “History will remember that a Gulf state had a role in expelling the foreign minister of a superpower and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote on Twitter.

.. FDD President Mark Dubowitz tweeted his approval of the move. “BREAKING,” he tweeted. “Trump ousts Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, will replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.” Dubowitz linked the news to a Washington Post report on Tillerson’s ouster, but then CC’d the entry to three Iranian officials: “@khamenei_ir,” “@HassanRouhani,” and “@Jzarif “: Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Burn It Down, Rex

Since the beginning of this nightmare administration, we’ve been assured — via well-placed anonymous sources — that a few sober, trustworthy people in the White House were checking Donald Trump’s worst instincts and most erratic whims. A collection of generals, New York finance types and institution-minded Republicans were said to be nobly sacrificing their reputations and serving a disgraceful president for the good of the country. Through strategic leaks they presented themselves as guardians of American democracy rather than collaborators in its undoing.

.. Last August, after the president said there were “very fine people” among the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Va., senior officials rationalized their continued role in the administration to Mike Allen of Axios. “If they weren’t there, they say, we would have a trade war with China, massive deportations, and a government shutdown to force construction of a Southern wall,”

.. Since then, we’ve had a government shutdown over immigration, albeit a brief one. A trade war appears imminent. Arrests of undocumented immigrants — particularly those without criminal records — have continued to surge.

.. Over the past 14 months we’ve also seen monstrous levels of corruption and chaos, a plummeting of America’s standing in the world and the obliteration of a host of democratic norms. Yet things could always be worse; the economy is doing well and Trump has not yet started any real wars.

The former Deputy National Security Adviser

  • Dina Powell left in January.
  • Gary Cohn, head of the National Economic Council, announced his resignation on March 6. Secretary of State
  • Rex Tillerson was terminated by tweet on Tuesday. National Security Adviser
  • H. R. McMaster will reportedly be among the next to go, and Trump may soon fire Attorney General
  • Jeff Sessions, possibly as a prelude to shutting down the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Adding to the tumult, a parade of lesser officials have either quit or been fired, including the White House communications director

  • Hope Hicks, staff secretary
  • Rob Porter and Trump’s personal aide
  • John McEntee.

The self-styled grown-ups are, for the most part, being replaced by lackeys and ideologues. Larry Kudlow, the CNBC pundit Trump has appointed to succeed Cohn, is known for the consistent wrongness of his predictions.

.. John Roberts of Fox News reported that McMaster could be replaced by uberhawk John Bolton, who last month wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.” (Bolton has described proposed talks between Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea as an opportunity to deliver a harsh ultimatum.)

.. This new stage of unbound Trumpism might make the administration’s first year look stable in comparison. That would partly vindicate the adults’ claims that things would be even messier without them. But it would also mean that by protecting the country from the consequences of an unhinged president, they helped Trump consolidate his power while he learned how to transcend restraints.

Whatever their accomplishments, if from their privileged perches these people saw the president as a dangerous fool in need of babysitting, it’s now time for some of them to say so publicly.

.. That logic, however, only holds for those who remain on decent terms with Trump. Which means that if there’s one person who has no excuse for not speaking out, it’s Tillerson, once one of the most powerful private citizens in America, now humbled and defiled by his time in Trump’s orbit.
.. “Rex is never going to be back in a position where he can have any degree of influence or respect from this president,” my Republican source said. Because of that, the source continued, “Rex is under a moral mandate to do his best to burn it down.” That would mean telling the truth “about how concerned he is about the leadership in the Oval Office, and what underpins those concerns and what he’s seen.”
..  patriotism and self-interest point in the same direction.
.. If Tillerson came out and said that the president is unfit, and perhaps even that venal concerns for private gain have influenced his foreign policy, impeachment wouldn’t begin tomorrow, but Trump’s already narrow public support would shrink further.
.. Republican members of Congress like Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, might be induced to rediscover their spines and perform proper oversight.

Trump is perfecting the art of the Big Lie

But few of these lies were as chilling as the one last week at a fundraiser in Missouri.

The president recounted how Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had told him that the U.S. doesn’t have a trade deficit with his country. Trump said he contradicted Trudeau — “Wrong, Justin, you do” — even though “I didn’t even know. … I had no idea.” When Trudeau insisted, “We have no trade deficit,” Trump replied: “I don’t believe it.” He then called in an aide who supposedly told him that the U.S. has no trade deficit with Canada — but only if you don’t count energy and timber. “ ‘And when you do, we lose $17 billion a year,’ ” Trump quoted the aide as saying. “It’s incredible.”

It’s incredible, all right, as in literally not credible. Trump’s own U.S. trade representative reports that the United States has a $12.5 billion trade surplus with Canada, and that includes energy and timber. But Trump didn’t back down: He insisted that his “alternative facts” were superior to actual facts.

.. On Thursday, the president tweeted: “We do have a Trade Deficit with Canada, as we do with almost all countries (some of them massive).” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was sent out to do a full Spicer by dutifully saying, without a scintilla of substantiation, that “there are plenty of things, once you take into the full account of all of the trade between the two countries, that show that there is actually a deficit.”

.. this is another example of a would-be dictator’s desire not just to sneak lies by us but to shove them down our throats. Trump is signaling that he doesn’t care what the truth is. From now on the truth will be whatever he says, and he expects every loyal follower to faithfully parrot the official party line. Or else.

.. after Trump’s graceless ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The White House initially claimed that Tillerson had been notified the previous Friday that he was being let go, but on Tuesday Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, contradicted that spin by telling reporters that Tillerson was “unaware of the reason” for his firing and had just found out about it. Goldstein was immediately canned and, in a significant bit of symbolism, replaced with a former host of “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s favorite TV show. Trump is sending a signal that not only does he insist on his right to lie but that he regards telling the truth as a firing offense.

.. Trump’s gloating tweet makes it obvious this was punishment for telling the truth about the Maximum Leader’s attempts to obstruct justice and end an investigation into his links to the Kremlin.

.. As his presidency advances, Trump is becoming increasingly intolerant of disagreement and defiance, especially from aides who know what they are talking about.

  • Gary Cohn tried to tell him that tariffs and trade wars are bad economics; Trump didn’t listen and Cohn resigned.
  • Tillerson tried to tell him that scrapping the Iran nuclear deal is a bad strategy, and now he’s gone. National security adviser
  • H.R. McMaster is saidto be the next candidate for the heave-ho, because he reportedly rubs Trump the wrong way.

.. The frightening thing is that Trump’s insistence on redefining reality is working, at least with his base.

.. The video news site NowThis has posted a hilarious and horrifying clip showing Fox News talking heads hyperventilating over President Barack Obama’s promise to meet with the leaders of hostile states such as North Korea (Mike Huckabee: “President Obama likes talking to dictators!”), before going on to fulsomely praise President Trump for doing just that.

.. Trump is sucking a substantial portion of America into his Orwellian universe. The rest of us have to struggle simply to remember that war isn’t peace, freedom isn’t slavery, ignorance isn’t strength.

The ‘Good Old Days’ of the Trump Presidency

you can’t have it both ways. You can argue that all of the chaos is part of Trump’s strategy. But you can’t cherry-pick the chaos you like and claim the media is making up the rest.

.. I’ve talked to people in the White House. I’ve talked to congressmen and senators off the record. And I’ve talked to far more people who’ve talked to such people. They all say that things behind the scenes in Trump World are nuttier than Mr. Peanut’s stool sample.

.. Just this week, the president’s body man was ejected from the White House on a freezing cold day, and he wasn’t even allowed to get his coat (presumably, he knows stuff — because he was instantly hired by the Trump reelection campaign).

Trump fired his secretary of State over Twitter.

Roll back the clock another week or two, and you have the sudden resignation of Hope Hicks and the revelation that Rob Porter couldn’t get a security clearance because of credible allegations that he was an abusive husband.

I can’t remember the last time Trump humiliated his attorney general, but it feels like we’re due. There was also some stuff about executing drug dealers and calling Chuck Todd a son of a b****. Oh, and there was that stuff about how trade wars are good.

..  Trump loves controversy but hates confrontation. That’s why he wants to force Sessions to quit

  • That’s why he fired James Comey while the FBI director was giving a speech in California, and it’s why he wanted to
  • fire Rex Tillerson while the secretary of State was in Africa.
  • .. when Democrats are in the room, Trump tells them he’d go for comprehensive immigration reform and preens about how he’d like to “take the guns first, go through due process second.”

.. Recently, people close to Mr. Trump say that he has begun to feel more confident that he understands the job of president. He is relying more on his own instincts, putting a premium on his personal chemistry with people and their willingness to acknowledge that his positions are ultimately administration policy, rather than on their résumé or qualifications for the job.

My friend and chicken-wing consultant Steve Hayes argues that Pompeo is in fact “the real Trump whisperer.” He reports:

“I’ve seen a dozen times when Pompeo has talked the president out of one of his crazy ideas,” says a senior administration official involved in the national security debates.

Let that sink in. It’s not quite as reassuring as it sounds. If Haberman is right, then even if Pompeo had success in the past constraining Trump, he might not be able to going forward, given how Trump is more inclined to let his freak flag fly.

.. One of the great divides on the right these days is over the question of whether the policy wins of the Trump administration occurred because of Trump or despite him.

With the possible exception of Ted Cruz, I don’t think any other Republican would have

  • moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem,
  • opened ANWR to drilling, or
  • pulled out of the Paris climate accords and
  • TPP (though I think the TPP move was a mistake).

Most of Trump’s policy successes, however, have been accomplished thanks to party and movement regulars in the administration and in Congress

  • Judicial appointments have been outsourced to the Federalist Society and Mitch McConnell, thank God.
  • Tax reform was Paul Ryan’s baby.

I am generally baffled when people say, “He’s gotten so much accomplished.” From where I sit, so much has been accomplished despite him.

He also gets “credit” for the fire sale of conservative credibility on countless conservative positions and arguments

.. The GOP’s tax-cut message did not have the salience Republicans hoped

.. Trump is increasingly toxic in normally Republican-friendly suburbs. His rallies may energize the GOP base — but they energize Democrats more.

.. Many of his preferred policies and most of his antics divide Republicans, while they unite Democrats.

.. Let’s also assume Mueller doesn’t find evidence of “collusion” that directly implicates Trump but that he does find enough to land Jared, Don Jr., and Michael Cohen in the dock. Paul Manafort is already looking at spending more than two centuries in jail.

What happens when

  • Democrats get subpoena power? What happens when
  • they start drafting articles of impeachment? What happens if
  • Mueller reveals that Trump isn’t really as rich as he claims and that
  • his business is mostly a Potemkin village of money-laundering condo sales? What happens
  • if Stormy Daniels — or the retinue of super-classy ladies reportedly looking to follow her lead — releases embarrassing pictures of the president?

How do you think unconstrained Hulk Trump reacts? Heck, how do you think the beleaguered skeleton crew at the White House behaves? Everyone is gonna lawyer up

Normal administrations are crippled by zealous investigatory committees; is it so crazy to think that Donald Trump might not show restraint?

Might he be tempted to give the Democrats the store to hold off investigations, impeachment, whatever? Everyone defends the Jerry Falwell Jr. caucus on the grounds that they have a “transactional” relationship with Trump. Well, what if other transactional opportunities take precedence?

..  in the next couple of years, a tsunami of tell-all books and more-in-sorrow-than-anger reputation-rehabilitating memoirs will probably come out.

.. “character is destiny.” And I’ve never been more confident that that destiny is coming, and it won’t be pretty.