Sep. 20

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Trump Threatens to Totally Destroy North Korea

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with "fire and fury." Yesterday at the United Nations he threatened to destroy the whole country. His boasting, threatening, intimidating style is par for the course for him but nothing like this has occurred at the United Nations since 1960, when Nikita Khrushchev's shoe met his desk with great force.

The speech started blandly enough. Indeed, the first 150 words or so could easily have come from the mouth of Barack Obama (if Obama happened to be from New York):

It is a profound honor to stand here in my home city, as a representative of the American people, to address the people of the world. As millions of our citizens continue to suffer the effects of the devastating hurricanes that have struck our country, I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to every leader in this room who has offered assistance and aid.

But then came lots and lots of the Trumpian (Trumpesque? Trumptastic?) braggodocio, enough so that one commenter described the address as a "42-minute tweetstorm." He declared that, "The stock market is at an all-time high--a record," and bragged about how, "the United States has done very well since Election Day last Nov. 8." He claimed that, "Unemployment is at its lowest level in 16 years," and promised that, "Our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been."

Once Trump had made clear to the room how large his...hands are, then it was time for the saber-rattling. He announced his "America First" doctrine to the room, thundering that, "We can no longer be taken advantage of or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return" and that, "The United States bears an unfair cost burden [for the United Nations]." Next up on the agenda was Kim Jong-un; Trump threatened to "totally destroy North Korea," a declaration that sucked all the air out of the room. Then—deciding there's no better way to conduct international diplomacy than by referencing a song that was a hit nearly half a century ago—he announced that, "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime." Whoever came up with that line gets an extra bottle of Trump vodka with their paycheck this week. Expect that one to make a repeat appearance on Twitter at some point. Oh, wait, it already has:

I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 17, 2017

Of course, there was zero chance that the Middle East/Muslims/terrorism would go unmentioned, and so that was the next passage in the speech. Trump slammed the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal: "The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States and I don't think you've heard the last of it, believe me." The President also advised the audience that, "the United States and our allies are working throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists." Maybe when that is done, they will move on to getting rid of the winner terrorists.

As he wrapped things up, Trump managed a potshot at his bugaboo du jour, Venezuela: "The socialist dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country." And then, in case he forgot anyone, The Donald finished with a blanket warning that, "major portions of the world are in conflict and some, in fact, are going to hell." In other words, just because some countries may have gone unmentioned, it doesn't mean they aren't going to burn, baby, burn (as long as we're referencing popular songs of the 1970s).

So was the speech a success? Well, like Khrushchev's performance nearly 60 years ago, Trump was clearly aiming for a domestic audience as much as a foreign audience. Certainly, there was lots of juicy, red meat for the base, but it's not terribly likely that they personally follow the goings-on at the United Nations. They are presumably going to learn about the speech through the right-wing media, and in that part of the world, the response has been mixed. Breitbart, for example, liked it, and InfoWars was thrilled; their headline was "PRESIDENT TRUMP ROCKS THE UN." On the other hand, RedState was largely nonplussed, and Fox News gave the speech very limited, and very muted, coverage. Not helping things is that Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, apparently hated the address, and made that clear with his body language, putting his face in his palm multiple times as the President spoke. That angle is getting broad coverage, including on the conservative sites. Add it all up, and Trump was aiming for a home run with the base, but probably recorded something more like a solid double.

Of course, the other audience for the speech was all of the world leaders in the room. On that front, Trump is peddling the story that he scored bigly:

A great and important day at the United Nations.Met with leaders of many nations who agree with much (or all) of what I stated in my speech!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2017

It seems a bit hard to believe that the world's leaders agreed heartily with Trump that they are a bunch of freeloaders. And indeed, the evidence does not seem to support the position that the speech was well received. To start, some of the most important audience members (at least in theory) weren't even present to hear the address. Russia's Vladimir Putin, Britain's Theresa May, and China's Xi Jinping aren't even in New York right now, while Germany's Angela Merkel, Mexico's Enrique Peña Nieto, and Venezuela's Maduro all left the room before the speech began, so as to avoid becoming Trump's props. The North Korean delegation, for their part, made a point of leaving during the speech. Undoubtedly, all of these people will eventually learn what the President said, but their non-attendance surely makes a statement about how they feel about him. Especially given that no major leader skipped Barack Obama's first U.N. address, and many of them even pleaded with his staff for photo-ops.

Among the leaders that were present, the reaction was generally not positive. Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced "Trump's shameless and ignorant remarks" and his "ignorant hate speech." Venezuela's Maduro compared Trump to Adolf Hitler. France's Emmanuel Macron was more muted, but was also clearly unhappy, and said, "Renouncing [the Iran deal] would be a grave error." Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told reporters that, "It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience." The leaders of Asia, according to media reports, could not decide what to make of the speech, but were mostly critical. There is a school of thought that says that the President's threats in North Korea's direction were not meant so much for Kim Jong-un, but for Xi, so as to make him nervous about the risks he's taking, and to force him to take action. Frankly, we're not buying it. The Trump administration has not shown that kind of Nixonian sophistication when it comes to diplomacy thus far, and there's no reason to believe they're starting now.

Trump's biggest problem, however, is not that the world's leaders did not like the speech. After all, some very important speeches—say, Churchill's 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech—were not popular, but were very influential. Trump's problem is that he's all bark and no bite and anyone who is sophisticated enough to become the leader of their country knows that. He threatens to pull out of the Paris Accord, then hedges his bets. He threatens to pull out of the Iran deal, then hedges his bets. He says he will make Mexico pay for a wall, then backs off that position. He says he will kill DACA, and then doesn't. As any decent poker player knows, you can only bluff so many times before everyone else at the table knows you don't have the goods. And so it's just not plausible to think that the world's leaders are going to take Trump seriously, since he's given them no reason to take him seriously. Indeed, on watching the footage of the speech, one notes not only the negative responses from Kelly and from the various representatives of the countries that Trump was lambasting, but also the fact that on more than one occasion, the audience was laughing. Not with him—at him. Presumably, that fact won't be finding its way onto Twitter. (Z & V)

Senate Cancels Private Interview with Trump's Lawyer

One of Donald Trump's long-time lawyers, Michael Cohen, was supposed to be questioned in private yesterday, but at the last minute the Senate investigators called off the meeting. They were upset that prior to the scheduled interview, and after they asked him not to release any statements before they talked to him, Cohen released a statement denying any role in Russia's election meddling.

Now, Cohen isn't off the hook, not by any means. The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), said that Cohen will now be asked to answer questions before the committee in public. If Cohen doesn't cooperate, the committee can issue a subpoena to compel his testimony.

The statement that Cohen released said: "I have never engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else to hack anyone or any organization." Of course, that is a very specific statement. It says he didn't ask anyone to hack any person or organization. There are many other things he might have done regarding the Russians, of course, such as receiving hacked information, discussing hacking with other members of the campaign team, planning how best to use information obtained by the Russians and handed to someone else on the campaign team, and much more. When he is before the committee, there will be a lot of questions about what else he knew or did, things that are not covered by the statement. (V)

Ryan Is Opposed to Fixing the ACA

The Senate is busy with health care on two fronts. HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) are working to fix the ACA and make it viable in the future. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and three other senators are trying to pass a last-ditch bill to radically change the ACA, removing all the subsidies and giving the money to the governors to use as they see fit. These two efforts are contradictory, and at most one of them can win. Yesterday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) gave his colleagues in the upper chamber some helpful advice: Forget what Alexander and Murray are up to and go with the Cassidy bill. Donald Trump is with Ryan on this one.

On the other hand, many governors, including those of Montana, Louisiana, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Virignia (all Democrats); Ohio, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Nevada (all Republicans); and Alaska (an independent) have come out against the Cassidy bill. So did the American Medical Association. The Congressional Budget Office has said it will not be able to score the bill before the Sept. 30 deadline, after which the budget reconciliation process cannot be used to pass it with just 50 votes (plus that of Vice President Mike Pence).

The stakes couldn't be higher. Trump has little faith in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and has even suggested that he resign his position. If McConnell again fails to get 50 votes, his reputation as a Senate wizard will be in tatters and Trump will be furious with him. McConnell can afford to lose only two members of his caucus and still pass the bill. Much to his consternation, the other senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, is on the record as a definite "no." That means of the seven senators who are still undecided, McConnell can afford to lose only one. The seven fence sitters are Senators Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Susan Collins (ME), John McCain (AZ), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rob Portman (OH), Dan Sullivan (AK), and Pat Toomey (PA). The biggest question marks here are Collins, Murkowski, and McCain, all of whom voted against the previous bill.

If the bill fails to get 50 votes, it is probably dead and gone forever. In theory, McConnell could use next year's budget resolution and the reconciliation process to bring it up again, but he wants to use next year's budget reconciliation to pass tax reform using only Republican votes. Combining health care and tax reform into one bill would be unmanageable. If the bill comes to a vote and fails, Plan B will be to look at what Alexander and Murray have cooked up. Ryan may not like it, but once we are into October, it may be that or nothing. (V)

Kobach Is Using a Personal Email Account

One might think that any politician who paid the slightest bit of attention to the 2016 election might be wary of using a personal email account for government business. But Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is the vice chairman of Donald Trump's voter fraud commission, is using a personal Gmail account and intends to continue to do so. His argument is that he is on the commission as a private citizen, not as a Kansas official, so there is no problem using his Gmail account for commission work. His real reason for doing so is that Gmail accounts are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Consequently, public interest groups cannot sue to get them. ProPublica has said that since he is working on a government commission, private citizen or not, he must comply with federal records retention laws, but clearly he has no interest in complying and it is unlikely that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to do anything to make him.

One thing that Kobach is probably not thinking about (but should be) is the possibility of emails leaking. Probably only one or two people had access to Hillary Clinton's email server and nothing leaked. A Gmail account is very different. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of system administrators and other Google employees no doubt have access to all the Gmail accounts. They need that access to keep the servers running. Of course, they are strictly forbidden by company policy from leaking any emails sent using the service, but sometimes stuff happens. It's also worth noting that part of what kept Clinton's mail server (reasonably?) safe was the fact that virtually nobody knew it existed; this is sometimes called "security through obscurity." On the other hand, everyone knows about Gmail, and now everyone knows that Kobach has an account. That makes him quite a juicy target for ill-doers worldwide, as well as insiders. (V)

Senate Confirms Trump's Pick for Solicitor General

On a party-line vote of 50 to 47, the Senate has confirmed the nomination of Noel Francisco, a conservative D.C. lawyer, as U.S. solicitor general. His confirmation is important in two ways. First, he will argue the government's cases before the Supreme Court. These will certainly include the Muslim travel ban and other very controversial matters. He has argued three cases before the Supreme Court before, most recently defending former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, who had been convicted of corruption. Francisco won the case, making it much harder for corrupt politicians to be prosecuted in the future.

The other reason that the confirmation is important is that the solicitor general ranks #4 in the Justice Dept. If Donald Trump decides that special counsel Robert Mueller is getting too close for comfort and wants him fired, the only way to do it is to ask the attorney general to do the dirty work. However, current AG Jeff Sessions has recused himself from Russia-related matters. So the request would be handed to Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. It is almost certain Rosenstein would resign rather than do it. So then the request goes to the associate AG, Rachel Brand. Although she is a conservative, Brand is only 44 and knows that firing Mueller would be the end of her promising career in law enforcement. So she probably wouldn't do it either. Then we get to #4, the new solicitor general, Francisco. Would he do the deed? Pull a full Bork, as it were? So far nobody has asked him. Sooner or later someone will, but the smart money is betting on his not answering the question. (V)

Trump Slams the Emmys

Clearly, he was busy getting ready for his U.N. appearance, and so is a day behind on the news. But, correcting for that lag, he was right on schedule when it came to jumping onto Twitter and blasting Sunday's Emmy awards:

I was saddened to see how bad the ratings were on the Emmys last night - the worst ever. Smartest people of them all are the "DEPLORABLES."

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2017

Again, he wrote that on Tuesday, so "last night" should have been "two nights ago." Thanks to that slip-up, he has managed to keep the story alive into a fourth news cycle. Maybe that's why John Kelly had his head in his hands (see above). (Z)

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