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Yesterday Was the Worst Single Day of the Trump Administration

May 8, 2019
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(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

1. Defense

The really worrisome takeaway from the Mueller Report wasn’t that Russia meddled in our election and favored Donald Trump. It wasn’t that Trump at the very least attempted to obstruct justice.

It was that the executive branch of government looks to be run by a bunch of incompetent people who have no real idea what they’re doing.

This is a non-partisan objection.

The big hope was that this chaos and disarray was limited to subjects where the president had personal political stakes.

Not so much.

Read this Defense One piece about what happened over the weekend with regards to the deployment of a carrier strike group to the Middle East.

Here’s how ship deployments are supposed to be handled by the executive branch:

This all could have been avoided with one press conference.Line up the defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs chairman, the appropriate generals and admirals, and announce that U.S. ships and bombers were being directed in and toward the Middle East to provide additional firepower to meet a new and credible threat by Iran against U.S. forces in the region.

Do it at the Pentagon briefing room, as was once the usual practice. If it’s of a higher importance, then do it at the White House — perhaps by dramatically walking it into the briefing room, as Reagan did during the Cold War, or even by going on primetime television. Explain what you know. State your case. Answer a few questions from reporters, to help them get the details right. Then sign off, having informed the public and made the political and national-security statement you wanted to make. Simple.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Instead, this is what Trump’s White House did:

  • Sent out an email from the national security advisor to reporters on a Sunday night with vague, bellicose language about the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group.
  • Not make anyone available to answer questions.
  • Leading to the secretary of state freelancing when asked about the email while in Finland.
  • And then having an admiral, at a public event, reveal that the strike group had already been scheduled to deploy and that this maneuver was not new, but part of pre-planned repositioning that began on April 1.
  • And all of the officials referred to vague “specific” threats from Iran.

This is how you wind up bumbling into conflict.

I’ve said this a hundred times and I’ll say it again: Strategic ambiguity can be a valuable tool in certain game theory situations.

But in military conflicts, strategic ambiguity is dangerous for the stronger power.

A large part of the advantage to being a hyper-power is that you can dictate terms of potential conflicts by making clear what the costs will be for any given action by an adversary.

It’s the weak states who try to use strategic ambiguity to make up for their lack of power.

So if this episode was an exercise in the Trump administration trying to create strategic ambiguity with regards to its policy in Iran, it was foolish.

If it was a case of bungling by a branch of government that is in disarray because the chief executive has no idea what he’s doing in the running of a government . . . well, that’s just dangerous.

Maybe we can make it through four years of Trump without any of these dangerous situations tilting out of control. But if we do, it will be nothing more than blind luck.

As Defense One notes, it looks as though the president barely knows what’s happening in the Pentagon:

It has been more than 330 days since a Pentagon spokesman was on camera in the Pentagon briefing room. It has been 252 days since a U.S. defense secretary held a press conference in the briefing room. President Trump has not nominated a replacement for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Shanahan has been serving as “acting” secretary for 126 days.

It turns out that the Mueller Report wasn’t just an indictment of political corruption but a description of how the government is now being run.

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2. Trump’s Taxes Are Coming

There was another bad story for Trump yesterday: His tax returns have moved one step closer to release.

The New York Times has the scoop. There’s plenty of interesting stuff in there, but to my mind, this is the big red flag:

Amid the hundreds of figures on 10 years of tax transcripts, one number is particularly striking: $52.9 million in interest income that Mr. Trump reported in 1989.In the three previous years, Mr. Trump had reported $460,566, then $5.5 million, then $11.8 million in interest.

The source of that outlier $52.9 million is something of a mystery.

Trump’s personal finances have always been his primary no-go zone. I would be surprised if there was not a very good reason for that.


3. Falwell

Oh, and there was one other bombshell story yesterday:

Michael Cohen says that he helped make compromising pictures of Jerry Falwell Jr. go away shortly before Falwell endorsed Trump:

Months before evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr.’s game-changing presidential endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016, Falwell asked Trump fixer Michael Cohen for a personal favor, Cohen said in a recorded conversation reviewed by Reuters. . . .

Falwell, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s largest Christian universities, said someone had come into possession of what Cohen described as racy “personal” photographs — the sort that would typically be kept “between husband and wife,” Cohen said in the taped conversation.

According to a source familiar with Cohen’s thinking, the person who possessed the photos destroyed them after Cohen intervened on the Falwells’ behalf. . . .

The Falwells enlisted Cohen’s help in 2015, according to the source familiar with Cohen’s thinking, the year Trump announced his presidential candidacy. At the time, Cohen was Trump’s confidant and personal lawyer, and he worked for the Trump Organization.

The Falwells wanted to keep “a bunch of photographs, personal photographs” from becoming public, Cohen told Arnold. “I actually have one of the photos,” he said, without going into specifics. “It’s terrible.”

I want to emphasize that all three of these stories broke yesterday.

You might think that this would be the single worst day of a presidential administration. But in the Age of Trump it is—literally—just another Tuesday.