We all know that the most effective form of government is a powerful chief executive who inherited his position and never got a chance to fail. When times are tough, you want a rich kid with a long resume in the family business. That’s how my grandparents’ generation won World War II: their parents won World War I. But what happens when two Little Lord Fauntleroy types square off? If you were to pit, say, Fred Trump’s kid against the cleverest public-school graduates in New York, you know who would win. Same goes for Kim Jong Il’s kid against the savviest apparatchiks in North Korea. When two such people square off, though, the resourcefulness that comes from being sucked up to your whole life cancels out on both sides. They are left with only their positions to defend them, plus their unimaginable wealth. Today is Friday, and two of the biggest assholes in the world are ready to win a nuclear war. Won’t you pit hack against hack with me?
On Twitter this morning, Sen. Mark Heinrich (D-NM) alleged that there were “basic factual errors” in the recommendation on national monuments that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke submitted to President Trump last month, including the claim that monument designation had reduced hunting access in New Mexico. According to local BLM staff, hunting access has improved under monument designation. Noting that these facts appear to contradict Zinke’s report, Heinrich asks John Ruhs, the Acting Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Managment, whether the secretary’s office consulted local BLM officials before drafting its report. In this video, Ruhs said the secretary’s office did not consult local BLM officials. Neither did it ask the BLM to fact-check Zinke’s memo.
That memo was previously kept secret, but it leaked this weekend. In it, Zinke recommends shrinking 10 national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act by previous presidents, mostly Barack Obama. He also makes several assertions that Outside magazine describes as “lies.” To be fair, some of what Outside criticizes are not claims of fact. But taken altogether, Zinke’s memo suggests that he formed his plan to reduce national monuments first and went looking for evidence second.
Back in May, Energy & Environment News reported that Interior had suspended meetings with Resource Advisory Councils, the local groups that have advised on federal land management decisions since 1996. Zinke did, however, consult a different group of stakeholders: oil companies. According to personal schedules obtained by the Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, during the first two months after he was confirmed, Secretary Zinke held “more than a half-dozen meetings with executives from nearly two dozen oil and gas firms…including BP America, Chevron and ExxonMobil.” He also met with Bakken oil magnate and 39th-richest American John Hamm, who is head of the American Petroleum Institute.
Such meetings account for one of the most technically true claims in Zinke’s report to president Trump, that public comments on the issue of shrinking national momuments “can be divided into two principal groups.” That is correct only in the sense that 99.2% of public comments received by the Department of the Interior wanted the monuments to stay at their current size. The other 0.8% felt differently. But this dividing of the more-than-99-percent and the less-than-one-percent into “two principal groups” was not a deliberate attempt to mislead the president. Zinke must have believed that 0.8% was significant, because he sided with them.
Taken together, these behaviors suggest that the secretary had a conclusion in mind when he set out to gather information about national monuments. That conclusion coincided with the wishes of resource extraction companies and contradicted the preference of the general public. Despite Zinke’s statements about consulting “stakeholders,” he took active steps to stop hearing from local groups invested in land management decisions. He didn’t even bother to ask BLM if what he was telling the president was true. These behaviors suggest one of two scenarios:
- Interior Secretary Zinke is bad at his job, or
- Interior Secretary Zinke knew what the president would want to hear and told him that.
So is he a yes-man or an incompetent? Neither possibility comports with the image Commander Zinke has projected throughout his political career. Neither do the recommendations in his memo square with his professed commitment to preserving public lands. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for why Zinke proceeded according to the principle of Just Sayin’ Stuff in order to produce a factually inaccurate memo to the president, and why his actions during the first six months of his tenure as an appointed official in the executive branch have diverged so sharply from the values he professed as an elected legislator from Montana. I would like to hear them. I suspect we all would.
There’s something about the green marble background at the UN General Assembly that really puts Trump in his element. Normally it looks dated, like Astoria’s idea of opulence in the 1990s, but put an icon of self-aggrandizing greed in front of it and the whole thing comes together. It makes me want to get out my gold fork and knife and dig in to a copy of The Andromeda Strain. Anyway, decor is the only way Trump is in his element at the United Nations. He makes a jarring contrast with most other aspects of that organization, for example their commitment to world peace. This morning, he took advantage of his audience of world leaders to threaten North Korea, like so:
For those of you who can’t watch videos because you’re prisoners or something, here’s the fillet:
The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully, this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about. That’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.
The United Nations is the greatest force for peace in the world, and I call on it to fulfill its mission by restraining my murderous impulses. Let’s see how they do. These remarks call attention to another element of the Trump aesthetic that is totally out of place at the UN: mean nicknames. In addition to raising questions about how he understands the Elton John Song, referring to Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” seems very out of place here.
Mean nicknames made a kind of sense during the campaign, which explicitly set candidates at odds with one another. Trump’s basic promise was that he would bully politicians on behalf of ordinary people, so his insult-comic persona was likable, albeit from a limited perspective that I did not share. It makes no sense before a body whose object is international cooperation, though. I suspect that the UN would cause more problems than it solved if all the delegates called one another names. It’s hard to claim you want peace with North Korea when you antagonize its notoriously vain dictator and then threaten to “totally destroy” his country. But it’s not Trump’s job to prevent the war that two generations of his predecessors have successfully avoided. That’s up to the UN. Let’s see how they do.
In the 21st century, the go-to move when someone expresses an unacceptable opinion is to try to get them fired. It’s a consequence of internet discourse: you can’t reach out and slap someone for, say, making a problematic joke about race and AIDS, but you can harness the power of social media to crowdsource complaints to their employer. When it comes to censoring bad speech, work is the new government. It was therefore kind of whiplash-inducing to see the original government—Government Classic, if you will—appeal to the power of ESPN to silence someone.
Monday night, SportsCenter host Jamele Hill tweeted that the president “owed his rise to white supremacy.” Conservative media has criticized ESPN for being too liberal, and the network duly chastised her for “inappropriate” remarks. Now seems like a good time to pause and point out that Hill’s tweets were probably unwise, from a career standpoint, but they are hardly inappropriate. There are good arguments to be made that Trump does owe his political success to white supremacists, and it’s appropriate for any American to criticize him for that. Anyway, despite this display of corporate submission, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today from the White House briefing room that Hill ought to be fired.
Maybe there’s a precedent for a White House spokesperson saying in an official capacity that a critic of the president should lose her job, but I can’t think of one. It’s crazy, first of all, that the White House would even take notice. Huckabee Sanders’s remarks came in response to a direct question about Hill, but still—the obvious play is to say “who?” and move on. Setting aside the dignity-of-office issue, though, it’s nanners for the White House to single out one of the president’s critics and call for her to be fired.
Is ESPN supposed to understand these remarks as a request from the president? Will the most powerful man in the world be mad at the cable network if they don’t fire Hill? And if they do, what new era might it signal in American democracy? You don’t need bills of attainder when the executive branch can wreck the career of anyone whose criticism catches the attention of the president. Anyway, the important thing is that even as fundamental norms of American democracy break down, the Law of Trump Tweets remains inviolable:
One problem with contemporary media is that news outlets are always trying to expand their audiences, but they also present the news as though people had been following it every day. Recent coverage of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that President Obama adopted in 2012, is a prime example. DACA is not a law, exactly. It’s a policy of the executive branch, which is in charge of immigration enforcement. Under DACA, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors can apply for work permits and a two-year, renewable period in which they will not be deported. It basically means that illegal immigrants who were brought here as children won’t get kicked out.
In its coverage of President Trump’s recent statements on the policy, CNN describes DACA as “a program that gave almost 800,000 young undocumented immigrants protections from deportation.” That’s it. The rest of the story is about Trump’s statements on DACA, different people’s reactions to those statements, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s position, et cetera. Readers learning about this issue for the first time know DACA is a “program,” whatever that means. They know it “gave…young undocumented immigrants protections from deportation” They know how many people it affects. But the details an informed citizen might use to evaluate this program are absent. DACA becomes the big, vague idea at the center of a report on what everyone else thinks about it. Readers can gather whether they’re supposed to be for or against it based on party affiliation, but they are given very little sense of what DACA actually is.
One victim of this problem appears to be the president. Yesterday, a few hours after he announced that he had instructed the Department of Justice to end the program, Trump tweeted this:
The phrasing of this tweet makes it sound like he believes DACA has been outlawed. Hopefully he is just using “legalize” as shorthand for “make into a law,” but then the parenthetical implies the Obama administration should have done that. Yet the president is against DACA. He doesn’t want it to be the law, unless his objection is that the president does not have the authority to shape immigration policy through selective enforcement. If that’s the case, it’s a radical departure from Trump’s broader views on the power of the executive branch. One wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, here, but the simplest explanation for this tweet is that he, like the CNN reader, has only a vague sense of what DACA is.
Maybe, though, he is playing more of that three-dimensional chess. It’s possible Trump knows that expelling undocumented immigrants is very important to his base but unpopular with a majority of voters. By calling on Congress to address the issue, he can show his core supporters that he is committed to ending DACA without incurring the blowback of it actually happening. It’s a way to blame the legislative branch for his failure to fulfill his campaign promises, as he did with Obamacare.
There’s an easy way to figure out which of those two scenarios we’re dealing with, and that’s for someone to ask President Trump to explain, in his own words, what DACA is. Presumably, any member of the Washington press corps who did that would be banned from the briefing room for life. It’s hard to ask anyone to prove he has basic knowledge of an issue without insulting him—the president much more so. But the same insularity that makes reporters assume their readers already know the details of DACA might blind them to the possibility that Trump isn’t really sure, either. That would be a story, right there.