Pointless Trump Storylines


Donald Trump is a hypocrite.  We knew that a long time ago.  Spending valuable time and resources on the most recent examples is just distraction from the real and growing dangers of his presidency.

Yet, we had extensive coverage, on his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, reporting that he and Melania engaged in actions for which Trump tweeted to criticize Barack and Michele Obama  when they made a similar visit.  Trump bowed just as Obama had.  Melania wore no scarf or head cover just as Michele had not.

Does reporting on that comparison enlighten us in any way? Does it make Trump supporters reconsider their backing for him? Does it change the political calculus among Members of Congress?

An example that makes even less sense is the endless speculating–and that’s all it is–on the condition of the Trumps’ marriage.  Did Melania reject Donald when he tried to hold her hand?  Or was it their personal version of a high-five?  No one knows and no one should care.

Trying to discern what her facial expressions “really” mean has become something of a cottage industry.  If there’s one thing we should all have learned by now, it’s that no one on the outside can really know what’s going on within a relationship.  More importantly, it’s a form of gossip that distracts from the important questions about Trump’s actions as president.

Another running narrative of the Trump presidency is that he plays golf frequently.  We all remember how loudly Republicans criticized President Obama for far fewer golf outings but seem unmoved by Trump’s trips to the fairways.

At some level, I’d rather have him putting than tweeting or making budget decisions, but that’s not really the point.  We know that his work habits are less than stellar.  We have seen countless examples of his willingness to indulge himself at taxpayer expense.  Neither, however, is breaking news.  And neither helps us deal with the very real damage that his presidency is doing to this country.

No one would call Donald Trump an eloquent speaker or even a particularly articulate one.  He makes up words, misspells them constantly, garbles thoughts and sentences and rambles in presentations in a way that leaves you scratching your head, wondering what he is talking about.

Words certainly matter and some of his language can create serious confusion, misunderstanding and even deepen divisions.  He should be called out in specific instances, but merely mocking his speech is a pointless, even counterproductive, enterprise.

On the whole, press coverage of Donald Trump is now exponentially better than it was during the presidential campaign.  Reporters have cultivated sources and revealed information that the Administration was trying to hide.  If not for the media, Mike Flynn would still be National Security Advisor, there would be no special prosecutor and any efforts to expose Russian interference in last year’s election and learn whether there was collusion by the Trump campaign would have long been buried.

The first four months of his presidency have been the subject of insightful analysis and commentary.  While many Republicans still cower in their safe districts, the public resistance to Trump has been significantly enhanced by the growing transparency that the press has provided.  In other words, the existence of the First Amendment and its protection of a free press has, yet again, proved invaluable.

Exactly for that reason, spending time chasing sideshows should be avoided.  In the first place, continuous stories about Trump’s golf outings run the risk of trivializing overall coverage of him.  The important issue is what his administration is doing to undermine protection of the environment, not how often he has gone to Mar-a-Lago.  The attack that Trump and Betsy DeVos are leading on public education in this country should have our full attention; Trump’s awkward sword dancing with Saudis is merely a distraction.

When the press plays up examples of his hypocrisy, it feeds into the narrative that he and his supporters are pushing that the media is picking on him, that reporters are biased against him.  He will always believe that he is being treated unfairly and perhaps many of his backers will also, but there’s no point in giving fodder to that claim.

Finding the right balance is no easy task.  The greatest risks from the Trump presidency come from his temperament.  His behavior should certainly be covered by the press.  That Trump is desperately trying to bury the investigation into his ties with Russia should have our full attention.  If he tweets in the middle of the night about some perceived grievance, it doesn’t deserve the same level of scrutiny as his efforts at a coverup.

It’s an absolute certainly that Donald Trump will continue to provide abundant reasons for people to resist politically and for the press to closely examine his actions.  This is no time to be distracted by quirky behavior that is not central to the issues of governing and democracy.



They’re Off and Running


Or are they?

Although it seems likely there will be a crowded field in Maryland’s 2018 Democratic Primary for Governor, appearances might be deceiving. Currently, eight names have been mentioned frequently enough to become a list, but it’s far from certain that all of them will still be running a year from now.

There are two reasons why the race has attracted as many prospects as it has. First, incumbent Larry Hogan looks like he could be vulnerable.

The most important factor is numerical. Hogan was elected Governor in 2014 with 884,400 votes in the November General Election.  By contrast, Martin O’Malley accumulated 942,279 votes in his 2006 victory and even more, 1,044,961, in winning reelection in 2010. In other words, Hogan’s win in 2014 was significantly impacted by Democrats not bothering to vote that year. Will they come back in 2018?

A second factor that might put Hogan at risk is the looming shadow of Donald Trump.  Maryland’s Republican Governor has done his best to avoid commenting on the chaos being created by Trump or on his growing political and legal problems.  Whether Hogan can get through an election season ducking and weaving around the backlash to new health care legislation and to federal budget cuts that will do great damage to Maryland seems doubtful.

On the other hand, Hogan remains popular, will have a mountain of money to spend on the General Election and, so far, has not stumbled badly on any particular issue.  He has demonstrated significant political skills and by next November may have built on those skills to solidify his position.

The second reason for the crowded Democratic field is that none of the contenders has established himself as a clear frontrunner.  No one comes into the race with the kind of political stature that Martin O’Malley had in 2006.

Some potential candidates are betting that the electorate will be looking for the kind of candidacy that they represent.  Is this going to be an outsider year?  Is one of these eight this year’s Bernie Sanders?  Or does what remains of a Democratic establishment reassert itself in the primary?  Moreover, with a large field, someone could win with considerably less than 40% of the vote by cobbling together the right coalition.

Looking at the credentials of the eight candidates–and I suppose others could still decide to join the race–three or four seem the most likely  to be still in the running by next year’s June Primary.  In making that observation, however, I’m not discounting the possibility that one of the lesser known candidates could put together a brilliant campaign and catch fire with voters.

Meanwhile, let’s segment the field.  Two county executives, both term-limited in their current positions, are almost certain to stay in the race.  Rushern Baker of Prince George’s and Kevin Kamenetz of Baltimore County both have records as local leaders that they can tout in their bids for statewide office.  On the other hand, both face the challenge of not being well-known beyond their home jurisdiction.

How well Baker and Kamenetz will do in running a statewide campaign and in raising the large amounts of money needed remains to be seen.  You can easily find supporters of each who will voluntarily offer critiques on the shortcomings of the other but, ultimately, voters will  get to make that judgment.

John Delaney and Doug Gansler belong in a different category.  The former, representing the 6th Congressional District, is clearly  interested in higher office and has the advantage of being able to put a lot of his own money into a campaign.  That money might overcome Delaney’s relative lack of name recognition outside his district, but he has to decide whether it’s worth the investment.  There is speculation that Delaney might instead have aspirations to national office.

Gansler is the only potential candidate who has already run a statewide race–three of them in fact.  The former State Attorney General lost the 2014 Democratic Primary to Anthony Brown, but could certainly argue that the deck was stacked against him.  Whether he can overcome the “beach party” picture from that race and build on his network of volunteers and donors are his big challenges.  A recent poll by his campaign did show him with a double-digit lead in name recognition.

If both Delaney and Gansler stay in the race, they will cut into each other’s vote totals.  On the other hand, if one of them drops out, the other may have a feasible path to winning the primary.

The other four names being mentioned–Ben Jealous, Rich Madaleno, Alec Ross and Jim Shea–are harder to classify.  Madaleno is a highly respected State Senator from Montgomery County who has been the leading critic of Governor Hogan among members of the General Assembly.  Whether he would give up his seat and the considerable influence he has in Annapolis will probably depend on whether his early campaign is able to attract enough donors and supporters to make him a credible threat to win the nomination.

The other three are political outsiders, individuals who have never run for political office before.  Jealous, former head of the NAACP, is trying to position himself as the populist in the race and still needs to demonstrate that he can put together a campaign that reaches traditional Democrats.  If he stays in the race, he has the potential to split the African-American vote with Baker and make it harder for either of them to win.

Whether Ross and Shea have any chance to make an impact on this race is anyone’s guess.  The early betting line is that neither of them do.

Who the Democratic nominee will be partly depends on how many candidates stay in the race and which ones do.  If the contest is highly divisive and the winner ends up with little or no money left for the General Election, the advantage will definitely swing back to Larry Hogan.

However, if one of these candidates emerges as a clear frontrunner and is able to raise a competitive war chest, the Democrat’s registration advantage combined with a high level of anti-Trump activism could be decisive.  No one has any basis for being complacent.



The Unprecedented President


Much attention has been devoted to trying to decide what psychiatric diagnosis best describes Donald Trump. Early consensus was that Trump is a textbook narcissist, but that assessment doesn’t seem nearly adequate to take in all his abnormal tendencies.

Recently, some observers have compared him to an underdeveloped child,a label which may be doing most children an injustice. Does he meet the criteria to be called a sociopath? That claim has certainly been made.

The problem with this line of thought, however, is that it’s irrelevant. Labeling him neither changes his behavior nor imposes any constraints on what he does. Whatever personal satisfaction you may take in referring to Trump as a narcissist, he is still president and he continues to do outrageous and dangerous things everyday.

Characteristics that were already evident during the Presidential campaign have, if anything, been accentuated since he took office.  Trump craves both the limelight and approval.  His attention span is so short as to make you wonder how he functions at all.  The President has no curiosity nor any inclination to educate himself about the many areas for which he has responsibility.  He is thin-skinned and quick to anger.  Yet, ultimately, none of these observations changes a thing.

Trump’s time in office has been chaotic and unproductive, but those are hardly the most important consequences of this uniquely abnormal man holding the most important job in the world.  He creates damage without knowing or caring.  He sells out his supporters without a second thought.  Moreover, Trump has neither respect nor regard for our constitutional system and the norms and values that have allowed it to function as well as it has for so long.

In the last two weeks, Trump has taken his assault on our democratic system to new depths.  After the House of Representatives passed a highly partisan and deeply flawed bill that purported to “fix” the country’s health care system, Trump led a celebration at the White House despite knowing little of what was actually in the bill and ignoring the fact that the process is far from over.  A celebration after your team has finally made a first down shows you don’t really understand what you’re doing.

Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey showed so many of  his personal flaws in vivid display.  It was clear very quickly that the President had been in a rage about Comey’s handling of the investigation of his ties to Russia.  After making various subordinates put out a clearly fictitious explanation, Trump undercut them with his own remarks and tweets, in essence acknowledging with pride that he had engaged in obstruction of justice.

Most observers at that point expected the Comey story to dominate the news for weeks. Firing the FBI Director seemed like an untopable display of misreading the political dynamics of a decision, bungling the explanation and setting up a constitutional confrontation.

That conclusion underestimated Trump’s tendency always to be able to dig the hole a little deeper.  This week, the Washington Post, working with sources within the government, revealed that Trump had disclosed highly confidential intelligence to the Russian Foreign Minister during a recent White House visit.

Trump tweeted that he, as president, had every right to reveal the information. Perhaps so but remarkably bad judgment on his part.  This from a man who threatened to have Hillary Clinton locked up for her handling of classified emails.

Another important strain of the Trump presidency was illustrated in this most recent incident.  The President constantly sends subordinates out to lie to the press or at least to offer defenses that attempt to cloud and confuse.  Sean Spicer has done that so many times that hardly anyone takes what he says seriously anymore.  He has lost the only resource that a press secretary must have, personal credibility.

Worse yet, Trump sent HR McMaster, his National Security Advisor and one of the few people in the administration who has been well-regarded and respected, to offer a defense.  McMaster disputed claims that did not appear in the Post article, didn’t deny that Trump had disclosed classified information and refused to take questions.  The cost of his standing up for Trump is to leave an indelible stain on one of the only adults in the room.

While many Americans watch in horror, Trump threatens the basic institutions of this country, reduces respect for the United States around the world and allows his administration to do great harm to the citizens of the country.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to reinstitute highly punitive and counter-productive drug enforcement laws.  EPA Director Scott Pruitt is gutting the nation’s environmental laws.  Trump’s proposed budget would benefit the very rich and devastate the lives of the most vulnerable citizens.

Labelling Trump won’t change anything.  We may get some relief from late night comics, but they won’t stop his presidency.  Democrats may be able to obstruct some measures and draw attention to others, but they are still in the minority in both houses of Congress.

What the country needs, I would even say desperately, is for Congressional Republicans to acknowledge that we have a president who is unhinged and that they alone can stop him.  So far, appeals to put country before party have fallen on deaf ears.  I expect little or nothing from either Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, both of whom are amoral opportunists.

Rather, this is the moment for some profiles in political courage from rank-and-file Congressional Republicans.  Senators and Representatives know what is going on in front of their eyes.  They are neither stupid nor blind, but they must stop acting like lemmings marching in lock-step with their party leaders.  It’s time to take their oath to the constitution seriously.