Trump’s new national security adviser disagrees a lot with … Trump

Sean P. Braniff, writing in the Washington Post:

After his national security adviser was forced to resign and the leading contender for his replacement withdrew, President Trump named Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster to the post on Monday. The decision was quickly hailed by many within the foreign policy establishment.

Why was McMaster so widely embraced? As President Trump may soon learn, it’s because the famed soldier’s views of the world differ significantly from those of his commander in chief — including on such important issues as Russia, alliances and terrorism.

McMaster’s background is formidable

H.R. McMaster has had a storied Army career. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in 1991, McMaster was a tank commander at the famed Battle of 73 Easting in Operation Desert Storm. In 2004, he oversaw the securing of Iraq’s Tal Afar. Many of his counterinsurgency tactics were later included in the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

He has also been influential as part of the military’s brain trust. With an American history PhD from the University of North Carolina, he wrote “Dereliction of Duty,” a popular book examining why the United States lost its war in Vietnam. McMaster’s outspokenness probably cost him promotions at several points in his career — but also gives us insight into his worldview.

McMaster’s worldview is in direct conflict with Trump’s on these questions

1) Is Russia an ally or a threat? 

Questions about the first national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian officials ended his tenure within the Trump administration’s first month. By contrast, McMaster says the greatest security threat facing the United States comes from strong states — Russia and China — that are “endeavoring to collapse” the post-World War II economic and security order.

McMaster emphasizes Russian “political subversion, disinformation, and propaganda,” in stark contrast with President Trump’s failure to condemn Russia’s attempt to hack the U.S. election. McMaster says there is no greater military threat than a war among great powers.

2) Should the United States go it alone in world affairs?

Because McMaster sees Russia actively trying to assert dominance, he values U.S. involvement in NATO. He calls it “arrogant and narcissistic” to encourage the United States to disengage from the world’s problems, because that examines global issues only as they relate to the United States, and he criticizes isolationism more generally.

Joint multinational operations are the appropriate response to the “fallacy” that the United States can withdraw from the world and go it alone, McMaster argues. Further, he argues that military power works to keep Americans safe only if well-integrated with “all elements of national and international power,” referring specifically to the safety of alliances.

Much more here.

After delay and amid pressure, Trump denounces racism and anti-Semitism

Abby Phillip and John Wagner, writing in the Washington Post:

President Trump on Tuesday denounced racism and anti-Semitic violence after weeks of struggling to offer clear statements of solidarity and support for racial and religious minorities.

During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump read carefully from prepared remarks decrying bigotry and specifically condemning a wave of recent threats against Jewish centers across the country.

“This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms,” Trump said. “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

Scanning the piece of paper with his finger as he read, Trump praised the museum on the Mall for its popularity and said the exhibitions had left their mark on his wife, Melania, who had visited the museum a week earlier.

For a president who prides himself on a freewheeling approach to leadership, Trump’s demeanor on Monday was notably somber and disciplined. The appearance stood in stark contrast to the flashes of irritation he showed at a news conference last week at the White House, when he dismissed questions from reporters about his outreach to African American political leaders in Washington and his lack of response to a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country.

The differing responses come as calls have been growing for Trump to respond to a wave of bomb threats directed against Jewish community centers in multiple states on Monday, the fourth in a series of such threats this year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. More than 170 Jewish gravestones were found toppled at a cemetery in suburban St. Louis, over the weekend.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called Trump’s statement “as welcome as it is overdue.”

“President Trump has been inexcusably silent as this trend of anti-Semitism has continued and arguably accelerated,” Pesner said. “The president of the United States must always be a voice against hate and for the values of religious freedom and inclusion that are the nation’s highest ideals.”

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the idea that Trump has been slow to address anti-Semitism and racism.

“I think it’s ironic that no matter how many times he talks about this, that it’s never good enough,” Spicer said.

Much more here.

 

Mr. Trump’s ‘Deportation Force’ Prepares an Assault on American Values

Via the Editorial Board of the New York Times:

The homeland security secretary, John Kelly, issued a remarkable pair of memos on Tuesday. They are the battle plan for the “deportation force” President Trump promised in the campaign.

They are remarkable for how completely they turn sensible immigration policies upside down and backward. For how they seek to make the deportation machinery more extreme and frightening (and expensive), to the detriment of deeply held American values.

A quick flashback: The Obama administration recognized that millions of unauthorized immigrants, especially those with citizen children and strong ties to their communities and this country, deserved a chance to stay and get right with the law. It tried to focus on deporting dangerous criminals, national-security threats and recent border crossers.

Mr. Kelly has swept away those notions. He makes practically every deportable person a deportation priority. He wants everybody, starting with those who have been convicted of any crime, no matter how petty or old. Proportionality, discretion, the idea that some convictions are unjust, the principles behind criminal-justice reform — these concepts do not apply.

The targets now don’t even have to be criminals. They could simply have been accused of a crime (that is, still presumed “innocent”) or have done something that makes an immigration agent believe that they might possibly face charges.

Mr. Kelly included a catchall provision allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers or Border Patrol agents — or local police officers or sheriff’s deputies — to take in anyone they think could be “a risk to public safety or national security.” That is a recipe for policing abuses and racial profiling, a possibility that Mr. Kelly will vastly expand if Congress gives him the huge sums required to hire 10,000 ICE officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents.

He wants to “surge,” his verb, the hiring of immigration judges and asylum officers. He wants to add processing and detention centers, which surely has the private-prison industry salivating at the profits to come.

He wants to ramp up programs deputizing state and local law enforcement officers as immigration enforcers. He calls them “a highly successful force multiplier,” which is true if you want a dragnet. It’s not true if you want to fight crime effectively and keep communities safe. When every local law enforcement encounter can be a prelude to deportation, unauthorized immigrants will fear and avoid the police. And when state and local officers untrained in immigration law suddenly get to decide who stays and who goes, the risk of injustice is profound.

So is the danger to due process. Current procedure allows for swiftly deporting, without a hearing, immigrants who are caught near the border and who entered very recently. But Mr. Kelly notes that the law allows him to fast-track the removal of immigrants caught anywhere in the country who cannot prove they have been here “continuously” for at least two years. He’s keeping his options open about whether to short-circuit due process with a coast-to-coast show-me-your-papers policy.

More here.

Contradicting Trump on Russia: Russian Officials

Matthew Rosenberg, writing in the New York Times:

For months, President Trump and his aides have insisted that they had no contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, a denial Mr. Trump repeated last week.

“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he told reporters on Thursday. “To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”

The denial stands at odds with statements by Russian officials, who have at least twice acknowledged contacts with aides to Mr. Trump before the election.

It is not uncommon for a presidential campaign to speak to foreign officials, which makes the dispute particularly unusual. At the same time, any contacts would have taken place during a period when American intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was trying to disrupt the election with a campaign of computer hacking.

The dispute began two days after the Nov. 8 election, when Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said his government had maintained contacts with members of Mr. Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign.

“I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said during an interview with the Interfax news agency.

Mr. Ryabkov’s comments were met with a swift denial from Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump and now a member of the White House press team.

More recently, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, told The Washington Post that he had communicated frequently during the campaign with Michael T. Flynn, a close campaign adviser to Mr. Trump who became the president’s national security adviser before resigning from the position last week.

“It’s something all diplomats do,” The Post quoted Mr. Kislyak as saying, though he refused to say what subjects they discussed.

Mr. Trump and his aides denied any contacts occurred during the campaign.

“This is a nonstory because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on Monday.

The Russian government did not respond to a message over the weekend seeking comment.

Separately, The New York Times and other news outlets reported last week that Trump campaign advisers and other associates of Mr. Trump’s had repeated contacts last year with Russian intelligence officials. Those reports, citing anonymous current and former American government officials, were vigorously denied by the White House.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump made clear his annoyance when questioned about contacts with Russia.

“How many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said during a White House news conference.

More here.

Trapped in Trump’s Brain

Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times:

Donald Trump is stuck in his own skull.

He’s unreachable.

“He lives inside his head, where he runs the same continuous loop of conflict with people he turns into enemies for the purposes of his psychodrama,” says Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio.

Because Trump holds Thor’s hammer, with its notably short handle, we must keep trying to figure out his strange, perverse, aggrieved style of reasoning. So we’re stuck in Trump’s head with him.

It’s a very cluttered place to be, a fine-tuned machine spewing a torrent of chaos, cruelty, confusion, farce and transfixing craziness. Of course, this is merely the observation of someone who is “the enemy of the American people,” according to our president.

President Trump likes maps. Once it was John King’s analysis of the CNN electoral map that Trump obsessed over. Now he wants policy papers heavy on maps and graphics and not dense with boring words.

So let’s visualize those phrenology skulls mapping distinct faculties in the brain, the ones that spur chastity, sympathy, philanthropy, philoprogenitiveness, mirthfulness, sincerity, grace, morality, generosity, kindness, benevolence.

Then think of the president’s skull, which is stuffed with other humours: insecurity, insincerity, victimhood, paranoia, mockery, self-delusion, suspicion, calculation, illogic, vindictiveness, risk, bullying, alimentiveness, approbativeness, vitativeness. Gall, divided into three parts.

It seems that at some point Trump decided that he didn’t really trust anyone else. While that was a reasonable strategy for a New York real estate developer who was always trying to rip off so-called partners, it’s obviously a limitation when you’re president.

Like all narcissists, he doesn’t like to be told if he’s screwing up, so he surrounds himself with people who don’t tell him.

The president is still oblivious about the shudder that went through the land, beyond the base that likes seeing the press jackals flayed, during his gobsmacking 77-minute masterpiece of performance art in the White House Thursday.

It was more Norma Desmond than Norman Vincent Peale, the Trump family pastor who wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking” and influenced Donald’s thinking as a child.

If Trump is the swanning, aging diva in the mansion, trapped in a musty miasma, Steve Bannon must be Max, the German director turned butler who massages Norma’s ego. In “Sunset Hair Boulevard,” Bannon is the one who encourages his diva to cling to a delusional world where she is still big and Jeff Zucker and Chuck Schumer are lightweights.

Much more here.

Last night in Sweden

Donald Trump, during yesterday’s rally, said:

“You look at what’s happening,” he told his supporters. “We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”

The Swedes are at a loss about what he said.

Via the New York Times:

Nothing particularly nefarious happened in Sweden on Friday — or Saturday, for that matter — and Swedes were left baffled.

“Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound,” Carl Bildt, a former prime minister and foreign minister, wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Trump did not state, per se, that a terrorist attack had taken place in Sweden.

But the context of his remarks — he mentioned Sweden right after he chastised Germany, a destination for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and deprivation — clearly suggested that he thought something awful had happened.

“Sweden,” he said. “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe.”

Contrary to Mr. Trump’s allegations, nearly all of the men involved in terrorist assaults in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, in Brussels on March 22 last year, and in Nice, France, on July 14, were citizens of France or Belgium.

As the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet noted, Twitter users were quick to ridicule Mr. Trump’s remark, with joking references to the Swedish Chef, the “Muppets” character; Swedish meatballs; and Ikea, the furniture giant.

Others speculated that Mr. Trump might have been influenced by a Fox News interview of Ami Horowitz, a filmmaker who asserts that migrants in Sweden have been associated with an increase in crime, by the correspondent Tucker Carlson. “They often times try to cover up some of these crimes,” Mr. Horowitz said, arguing that those who try to tell the truth about the situation are shouted down as racists and xenophobes.

(Mr. Carlson interjected: “The masochism of the West knows no bounds at all.”)

Mr. Horowitz said, “Sweden had its first terrorist Islamic attack not that long ago, so they’re now getting a taste of what we’ve been seeing across Europe already.”

It was not clear what he was referring to. In 2010, a suicide bomber struck central Stockholm, injuring two people. The bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, 28, was an Iraqi-born Swede who had developed an affinity for Al Qaeda. But that attack occurred long before the current wave of migrants fleeing war and deprivation.

More here.

New York Times fact checks Trump’s rally

Linda Qiu, fact checking for the New York Times:

Mr. Trump warned that refugees coming into the United States are not screened.

“We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country. There was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation, there was no nothing.”

Refugees are vetted, and it takes two years.

Mr. Trump repeatedly made this inaccurate claim during the 2016 campaign, and it is still inaccurate. The country’s vetting system for refugees, which begins at the United Nations, is extensive.

Applicants undergo several rounds of background and biometric checks — fingerprints and retina scans, for example — by multiple federal immigration and intelligence agencies. The system is not foolproof, and intelligence officials have raised concerns about gaps in data collection on people coming from conflict zones like Syria.

Mr. Trump claimed that Americans are optimistic about the future.

“Look at what’s happening in every poll when it comes to optimism in our country.”

Some polls show optimism, others don’t.

In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Trump’s election, the majority of voters expressed optimism about the next four years in several respected polls. But the results have varied in more recent months: 53 percent said they were optimistic in a Quinnipiac University poll, while 54 percent said they were pessimistic or uncertain in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

According to Gallup’s weekly economic optimism poll, Americans are slightly less confident in the economy in February than they were in January. In other Gallup polls, Mr. Trump’s approval rating and Americans’ view of the country’s standing in the world are the lowest in decades.

Mr. Trump extolled an increase in jobs.

“Jobs are already starting to pour back in. They’re coming back in like you haven’t seen in a long time.”

Data shows modest gains so far.

The economy added 227,000 jobs in January 2017, a healthy but less than record increase, more likely attributable to the ending days of the Obama administration than the incoming president. And the unemployment rate “was little changed,” remaining at 4.8 percent for January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s 0.1 percent higher than it was the previous month.

Mr. Trump alluded to high crime in Chicago and the country at large.

“Look at what’s happening in Chicago — hundreds of shootings, hundreds of deaths. I’ll tell you what’s happening in Chicago, and many other places.”

Crime is high in Chicago, but it has generally declined.

Mr. Trump warned of soaring levels of crime during the 2016 election, ignoring data. Chicago did experience a surge in homicides last year, with more than 750 people murdered. The country’s third-largest city, along with three other urban areas, contributed to a jump in the national murder rate in 2016. But over all, both violent crime and property crime have fallen since the early 1990s.

How could things get worse for Trump?

Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post:

President Trump is flailing like a man who fears he’s about to go under, and he hasn’t even been in office a full month. His instinct is to flee to the warmth and comfort of his political base — but he will learn that while presidents can run, they can’t hide.

Trump’s administration faces two acute, interlocking crises: serious questions about his campaign’s contacts with official and unofficial representatives of the Russian government, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe made concerted efforts to help Trump win the election; and appalling levels of dysfunction in the White House that make self-inflicted wounds the rule rather than the exception.

The president’s response has been to rant on Twitter and schedule a campaign-style rally Saturday in Florida — both of which may boost Trump’s morale but will do nothing to make his problems go away.

It is unclear whether Trump is trying to fool the nation or fool himself. Witness one of the angry tweets he sent out Thursday morning: “The Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly (306), so they made up a story — RUSSIA. Fake news!”

Let me take a moment to unpack the misinterpretations, distortions and contradictions jammed into those two sentences.

“The Democrats had to come up with a story” refers to Trump’s claim that the Russia allegations are nothing more than a tantrum by Democrats upset that Hillary Clinton did not win as they had expected. That is ridiculous. The Democratic Party is focused on rebuilding at the grass-roots level and finding new leadership. Democrats I’ve spoken to have as much criticism as praise for Clinton and the campaign she ran.

Trump’s phrase “they lost the election, and so badly” ignores the facts. Clinton did comfortably win the popular vote, after all. And Trump’s electoral margin was historically quite modest.

The part about how Democrats “made up a story — RUSSIA” is absurd. It was U.S. intelligence agencies, not the Democratic Party or the Clinton campaign, that made the finding that Russia meddled in our election with the aim of boosting Trump’s prospects. If anything, the chief Democrat at the time — President Barack Obama — reacted too mildly.

And the tweet ends with what has become Trump’s favorite way to dismiss anything he’d rather not hear: “Fake news!” But why would his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, step down over inauthentic news reports? In other tweets Thursday morning, Trump attacked “low-life leakers” in the intelligence community — thus essentially confirming that leaked information about the Russia connection is genuine, not “fake.” Not even a president can have it both ways.

More here.

The Downfall of Kellyanne Conway

Erin Gloria Ryan, writing in The New York Times:

As Kellyanne Conway sleepwalks her way through a series of increasingly embarrassing interviews, it’s been hard not to feel sorry for her. It was difficult not to feel bad for her when “Saturday Night Live” depicted her as a craven hack driven to “Fatal Attraction”style debasement by a desire to appear on the news. When the cast of “Morning Joe” pointed out that Ms. Conway’s recent appearances on news shows proved her a useless source of information, when they sneered at Ms. Conway’s apparent White House ostracization, it was difficult to not feel stirrings of sympathy.

But I can’t feel sorry for Kellyanne Conway. Not anymore.

Not long ago, Ms. Conway felt like a vital part of a system that needed smart people on both sides to make it work. As a pollster who studied the electoral behavior of women, she served as a bridge between the right wing and a demographic that often seemed to perplex them.

The first time I saw Ms. Conway speak was at a New Yorker Festival panel in 2012. I was new to New York City. I was new to writing about politics. I was new to writing, period. On a panel about women voters, Ms. Conway spoke with a pragmatism that stood in opposition to contemporary TV personalities like Elisabeth Hasselbeck, whose brand of delicate pouting defined the conservative zeitgeist. Ms. Conway didn’t appeal to her audience’s sympathy. She had facts.

* * *

When Ms. Conway breached federal ethics laws by hawking Ivanka Trump’s “stuff” in the press briefing room, she got off with no immediate penalty besides being “counseled on the subject.” She told Fox News that the president supported her, that she was lucky to have a nice boss like Donald Trump and that every woman in America should hope to have a boss like him. She made it sound as though declining to punish a woman for ethics violations was somehow feminist, and as though all that matters to women is how their bosses treat them personally, not how their bosses impact the lives of other women.

If I wasn’t too exhausted to feel insulted, I’d have felt insulted.

More here.

President Trump, White House Apprentice

Via New York Times Editorial Board:

It’s with a whiff of desperation that President Trump insists these days that he’s the chief executive Washington needs, the decisive dealmaker who, as he said during the campaign, “alone can fix it.” What America has seen so far is an inept White House led by a celebrity apprentice.

This president did not inherit “a mess” from Barack Obama, as he likes to say, but a nation recovered from recession and with strong alliances abroad. Mr. Trump is well on his way to creating a mess of his own, weakening national security and even risking the delivery of basic government services. Most of the top thousand jobs in the administration remain vacant. Career public servants are clashing with inexperienced “beachhead” teams appointed by the White House to run federal agencies until permanent staff members arrive.

Mr. Trump lost his national security adviser this week in a scandal involving ties to Russian intelligence. Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refused the job on Thursday, rattled by a dysfunctional National Security Council and a president who has alienated Mexico, Australia and even the British royal family, while cozying up to Moscow.

When Mr. Trump’s assistants can keep the edge of panic out of their voices, they insist that Mr. Trump has gotten more done in the early going than most presidents. And Mr. Trump is so adept at creating smoke that Americans might be forgiven for thinking that’s true. But at this point in the Obama presidency, which did inherit a mess, Congress had passed laws aimed at dragging the economy back from the brink of depression while committing $800 billion in Recovery Act spending to projects ranging from housing to roads to advanced energy technologies.

* * *

“Everything he rolls out is done so badly,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, marveled recently. “They’re just releasing comments, tweets and policies willy-nilly.”

If there is any upside here, it is that the administration’s ineptitude has so far spared the nation from a wholesale dismantling of major laws, including the Affordable Care Act, though he may yet kill the law through malign neglect. In the meantime, however, as Mr. Harward’s retreat on Thursday suggests, the chaos carries other risks. A Navy SEAL turned corporate executive, Mr. Harward cited family and financial considerations for refusing the national security job, but privately he was reported to be worried about the effect of a mercurial president on national security decision making. As Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said this week: “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war.”

More here.

What a Failed Trump Administration Looks Like

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.

Trump’s White House staff is at war with itself. His poll ratings are falling at unprecedented speed. His policy agenda is stalled. F.B.I. investigations are just beginning. This does not feel like a sustainable operation.

On the other hand, I have trouble seeing exactly how this administration ends. Many of the institutions that would normally ease out or remove a failing president no longer exist.

There are no longer moral arbiters in Congress like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin to lead a resignation or impeachment process. There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president. This is no longer a country in which everybody experiences the same reality.

Everything about Trump that appalls 65 percent of America strengthens him with the other 35 percent, and he can ride that group for a while. Even after these horrible four weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not close to abandoning their man.

The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.

What does that look like?

First, it means an administration that is passive, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. To get anything done, a president depends on the vast machinery of the U.S. government. But Trump doesn’t mesh with that machinery. He is personality-based while it is rule-based. Furthermore, he’s declared war on it. And when you declare war on the establishment, it declares war on you.

The Civil Service has a thousand ways to ignore or sit on any presidential order. The court system has given itself carte blanche to overturn any Trump initiative, even on the flimsiest legal grounds. The intelligence community has only just begun to undermine this president.

President Trump can push all the pretty buttons on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise, but don’t expect anything to actually happen, because they are not attached.

Second, this will probably become a more insular administration. Usually when administrations stumble, they fire a few people and bring in the grown-ups — the James Baker or the David Gergen types. But Trump is anti-grown-up, so it’s hard to imagine Chief of Staff Haley Barbour. Instead, the circle of trust seems to be shrinking to his daughter, her husband and Stephen Bannon.

Bannon has a coherent worldview, which is a huge advantage when all is chaos. It’s interesting how many of Bannon’s rivals have woken up with knives in their backs. Michael Flynn is gone. Reince Priebus has been unmanned by a thousand White House leaks. Rex Tillerson had the potential to be an effective secretary of state, but Bannon neutered him last week by denying him the ability to even select his own deputy.

In an administration in which “promoted beyond his capacity” takes on new meaning, Bannon looms. With each passing day, Trump talks more like Bannon without the background reading.

Third, we are about to enter a decentralized world. For the past 70 years most nations have instinctively looked to the U.S. for leadership, either to follow or oppose. But in capitals around the world, intelligence agencies are drafting memos with advice on how to play Donald Trump.

The first conclusion is obvious. This administration is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern nation-state. It’s more “The Madness of King George” than “The Missiles of October.” The key currency is not power, it’s flattery.

The corollary is that Trump is ripe to be played. Give the boy a lollipop and he won’t notice if you steal his lunch. The Japanese gave Trump a new jobs announcement he could take to the Midwest, and in return they got presidential attention and coddling that other governments would have died for.

If you want to roll the Trump administration, you’ve got to get in line. The Israelis got a possible one-state solution. The Chinese got Trump to flip-flop on the “One China” policy. The Europeans got him to do a 180 on undoing the Iran nuclear deal.

More here.

A Party to the Russian Connection

Evan McMullin, writing in the New York Times:

President Trump’s disturbing Russian connections present an acute danger to American national security. According to reports this week, Mr. Trump’s team maintained frequent contact with Russian officials, including senior intelligence officers, during the campaign. This led to concerns about possible collusion with one of America’s principal strategic adversaries as it tried to influence the election in Mr. Trump’s favor. On Monday, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was forced to resign after details of his communications with the Russian ambassador emerged.

Republican leaders in Congress now bear the most responsibility for holding the president accountable and protecting the nation. They can’t say they didn’t see the Russian interference coming. They knew all along.

Early in 2015, senior Republican congressional leaders visited Ukraine and returned full of praise for its fight for independence in spite of Russia’s efforts to destabilize the country and annex some of its regions. And in June, coincidentally just before Mr. Trump announced his campaign for the Republican nomination, they met with Ukraine’s prime minister in Washington — one of many meetings I attended as a senior aide to the House Republican Conference.

As the presidential race wore on, some of those leaders began to see parallels between Russia’s disinformation operations in Ukraine and Europe and its activities in the United States. They were alarmed by the Kremlin-backed cable network RT America, which was running stories intended, they judged, to undermine Americans’ trust in democratic institutions and promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Deeply unsettled, the leaders discussed these concerns privately on several occasions I witnessed.

Some also questioned Mr. Trump’s attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, women and people with disabilities, or his positions on entitlement reform, discretionary spending and national security. Others were unnerved by his volatile temperament, egoism and authoritarian tendencies. In public, they occasionally offered light criticism of Mr. Trump’s most objectionable comments, but mostly remained silent for fear of antagonizing his supporters.

As Mr. Trump campaigned, his consistent affection for Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and apparent defense of Russian intervention in Ukraine raised further concerns. In December 2015, on “Morning Joe,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Putin, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” He also equated Mr. Putin’s murderous regime with the American government: “Our country does plenty of killing, also” — a remark he has repeated as president.

Suspect public comments like these led one senior Republican leader to dolefully inform his peers that he thought Mr. Trump was on the Kremlin’s payroll, suggesting that Mr. Trump had been compromised by Russian intelligence. Other leaders were surprised by their colleague’s frank assessment, but did not dispute it.

As Mr. Trump prevailed in state after state, the leaders came to terms with the possibility, then the likelihood, that he would win the nomination. During the process, most leaders had not endorsed a candidate and hoped that Mr. Trump would be stopped. By early May 2016, however, his victory appeared a fait accompli, placing them in an unenviable position. As senior leaders, opposing the outcome of the party contest was unthinkable.

Eventually, one by one, they all committed to supporting Mr. Trump, often simply saying they would support the nominee, conspicuously avoiding uttering Mr. Trump’s name. In a fascinating political metamorphosis, some even found reason to be excited about Mr. Trump.

* * *

Now the leaders’ worst fears seem validated. Mr. Flynn has become the third Trump team member to step down over Russia-related issues, following the campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

This plotline is unlikely to improve of its own accord, and America’s security is now at stake. For Republican leaders in Congress, there is no more room for cognitive dissonance. Instead, it is urgent that they recommit to patriotic prudence. They should demand that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appoint an independent special counsel to investigate Russia’s assault on American democracy and Mr. Trump’s possible collusion with the Kremlin.

Much more here.

The Trump brand was built on winning. So what happens when it starts to lose?

Christine Emba, writing in The Washington Post:

The White House is perhaps the best imaginable venue for product placement. But despite the fact that it now commands a presidential seal, the Trump brand seems less attractive than ever.

Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and even discount retailers such as Kmart are dropping daughter Ivanka’s fashion line. Companies such as Uber face backlash for merely giving the impression of being pro-Trump. Professional athletes, those traditional arbiters of cool, are turning their backs: So far, six of the New England Patriots have declined to meet the president, and beloved Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry mockingly described President Trump as an asset — “if you remove the ‘et.’ ”

The “brash business mogul” brand just hasn’t translated well from the campaign trail to leadership of the country. In fact, the move to D.C. seems to have deflated it completely.

Overexposure hasn’t helped. Even under the harsh lights of the campaign, Trump operated under, if not a veil of mystery, at least a level of remove. Watchers certainly saw enough of him to stick in their minds, but the barrage only became unrelenting late in the game.

Today, however, we’re seeing far more of Trump than we would like — and it’s rarely a flattering view. The constant, unnecessary tweets! The manifold White House leaks! The confoundingly public bathrobe discussions! The tweets again!

It’s one thing for a provocateur to make an effort to stay in the public eye: Think of Madonna’s ever-changing looks. But at a certain point — perhaps after the presidency has been achieved, or your 13th studio album — it ceases to impress. Remember when a negative Trump tweet had the power to make a company’s stock drop? His latest swing at Nordstrom did the opposite . Over time consumers have become numb to Trumpisms, or worse, they’ve begun to find them grating.

But there’s another problem more damaging than overexposure: The narrative beneath the Trump brand is crumbling.

A brand is a promise to a customer. On the campaign trail, and throughout his career, Trump built his brand on getting things done that no one else could. Using the element of surprise. Making the best deals. Winning, first and foremost. Improbably, the election bore this story out. But what happens when a brand built on winning starts to lose?

Trump’s first major gambit was his executive order on immigration, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s swift ruling against it was an undeniable, and justified, loss. The bluster and bravado of his all-caps response — “SEE YOU IN COURT” — didn’t make that failure any less apparent (in no small part because, well, we did just see him in court, didn’t we?).

While every new administration experiences setbacks, Trump’s unpreparedness and lack of organization clearly contributed to this early defeat and others that have come with it: a lackluster inauguration whose underattendance was only highlighted by flagrant falsehoods about crowd size, a botched raid in Yemen, the resignation of a national security adviser over improper contacts with Russia. These fast-mounting failures set an ominous tone. It’s hard to trust the brand going forward.

But all is not lost. Marketing experts and corporate strategists would soothingly point out that setbacks aren’t necessarily the end of the story. A moment of crisis is an excellent opportunity to pivot — try a brand refresh, if you will. It worked for Burberry in the late ’90s. Why not Trump today?

More here.