Week 3: Send In The Clowns

Los Angeles, 12 February 2017

Well, after a rocky first two weeks, the Trump administration stabilized in Week Three, transforming into a more traditional and competent governing…

Sorry.

I kept that going for as long as I could.

But I was laughing too hard to type.

So, having gone away to have a cup of tea and calm down, here’s a recap of news from the last week in America (hopefully a phrase you won’t have to use literally).

Monday began with the president’s approval rating at historic lows, prompting Mr. Trump to tweet: “Any negative polls are fake news”. This, to put it charitably, has a whiff of the uniformed-blingy-authoritarian about it. Next up, a broadside at the press for failing to report on terror attacks. Which seemed odd, given the press falls on those stories like foxes at a bin. Nevertheless, President Trump told military officers that “the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it…They have their reasons”. The White House then produced a misspelled list of 78 terror “attaks” the press apparently hadn’t covered well enough. As the list included “San Bernadino” (sic), Nice, Paris, Brussels, and Orlando – which received saturation coverage – this led to a collective journalistic “WOT?” and some pointed comments about the White House’s use of spell-check.

Things looked up with reports of the First Lady suing the Daily Mail (which deserves suing whenever possible). But any “hurrah!” swift became “haroo” when it transpired the First Lady was seeking $150 million in damages in part because the Mail prevented her from using a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” in “a multi-year term during which plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world” to flog “apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skin care and fragrance.” As the media pointed out, making a sack of cash out of being FLOTUS isn’t quite the point…

Meanwhile, Democratic Senators “held the floor” all night to protest the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – a billionaire Republican donor with limited understanding of educational policy who presides over a department that misspelled a tweet then misspelled its apology for misspelling, and justified keeping guns at schools on account of the “grizzly bears”. Two Republican senators crossed the floor to vote against DeVos and a 50/50 split was settled by Vice President Pence casting an historic tie-breaking vote to confirm. Because who needs spelling? And fuck bears!

As the week progressed, we moved to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer arguing with the New York Times about whether President Trump owns a bathrobe. This was fallout from a story about Trump’s daily routine by senior political reporters Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman that included the innocuous line: “watching television in his bathrobe”. The White House’s pushback seemed bizarre to me, given this is the one thing Trump does that I agree is entirely sensible. We braced, as Twitter exploded with rebuttal pictures of a younger Donald draped across beds in bathrobes – something, I think we can all agree, America really didn’t need right now. These were juxtaposed by pictures of a smiling Barack Obama, kite-surfing in the Caribbean, which definitely did not make me sob-wail, “I … just … miss … competence … so … MUUUUUUUCH”.

Let’s move on to happier subjects. Like murder statistics. At a meeting with sheriffs from across the nation, the president claimed the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years. This, as the Washington Post gleefully contradicted, isn’t quite right. Strictly, it’s completely false: “The country’s murder rate is not the highest it’s been in 47 years. It is almost at its lowest point, actually, according to the FBI.” During that meeting, the president “joked” with a sheriff who had a disagreement with a state legislator: “Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career” – the comedy equivalent of asking someone “knock knock?” then responding to “who’s there?” with a punch in the face.

Also in the legal world: the Senate voted on President Trump’s nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to serve as Attorney General. It was pointed out that Sessions was accused of being too racist to be a Federal Judge in the 1980s, and being too racist for the 1980s is – well…very racist indeed. But Senator Sessions hotly denied the allegations and Congressional Republicans let bygones be bygones. Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the nomination, reading a letter tabled at Sessions’ 1986 confirmation hearing by Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, that argued:

“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”

In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked an arcane procedural rule to stop Warren from reading a black civil rights leader’s historic letter during Black History Month, then banned Senator Warren from speaking. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted” – which was printed on t-shirts as soon as McConnell finished saying it. Senator Warren continued to “persist”. She just went outside and read the letter to 6 million viewers on Facebook Live.

McConnell’s action was a such a rare clusterfuck from a skilled political strategist that the press speculated whether his action was intentional: elevating the liberal Warren rather than the centrist Chuck Schumer to lead the Democratic resistance. Which sort of misses the point – suggesting that a brilliant former Harvard Law professor needs the senior Senator from Kentucky to reverse-mansplain her into a liberal icon.

The “so-called” law continued as the theme of the week. When Nordstrom pulled Ivanka Trump’s products after declining sales, President Trump blasted them on Twitter (with his and the official @POTUS accounts), bringing the power of the US presidency to bear on a department store for making a commercial decision that didn’t please his family. (Although, this backfired when Nordstrom’s stock rose 7 per cent). Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway appeared on Fox News and cheerily plugged the First Daughter’s products: “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff”, Conway said. “I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody.” Of course, Ms. Conway isn’t paid a government salary to flog Trump merch and, after this seemingly blatant breach of ethics rules, she was “counseled”. As Michael Che noted on Saturday Night Live:

“Counseled? Her job title is literally counselor to the president. So Trump’s White House is so dysfunctional, his counselor needs a counselor. That’s like your Uber driver asking you to get out and push.”

Meanwhile, the president defended his Executive Order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations as a law “a bad high school student” could understand – which makes sense, as Trump could understand it. Trump, in contrast, argued that he “was a good student. I understand things. I comprehend very well, OK, better than I think almost anybody”. The Federal Court disagreed, unanimously upholding the stay on Trump’s Order, and giving it the judicial equivalent of a wrestling smack-down. President Trump tweeted “SEE YOU IN COURT” which, as the entire internet responded, was odd, given the judges were already in Court and, presumably, quite like Court.

At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everybody was a bit exhausted after the week’s events and went home for supper and a lie-down.

NOPE.

Alabama’s governor appointed State Attorney-General “Luther Strange” to fill Senator Sessions’ vacant seat, and America had to Google him to be sure it wasn’t an Onion article making a supervillain joke. President Trump and his advisors repeated their baseless claim that the 2016 election was subject to vast voter fraud (which seems an odd lie, given the president won that election). The president described Senator Warren, who has Native American heritage, as “Pocahontas”, and Richard Schiff, who played Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, led a movement to get #PresidentBawbag – a Scottish protest sign insult – trending on Twitter. A deeply sourced Washington Post report alleged that, while President Obama was still in power, current former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn may have worked to undermine Obama’s sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. And President Trump hosted Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, nodding sagely along as the Prime Minister spoke in Japanese. When asked whether President Trump speaks Japanese, the White House answered: “To the best of our knowledge, no”.

Having repeatedly criticized Barack Obama for playing golf, President Trump went to his private club, Mar-A-Lago, for the second weekend in a row – to play golf with Mr. Abe. There, on receiving news North Korea had tested a ballistic missile, the president coordinated the United States’ response from a club restaurant, surrounded by guests, then reviewed documents at the table, surrounded by waiters. Guests took pictures and posted them on Facebook. President Trump later photobombed a wedding.

The weekend ended with the president’s 31-year-old advisor, Stephen Miller, appearing on talk shows to argue that: “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”. Apparently, he’s going for his “Junior Dictator” badge. Then the president’s official inauguration poster was released, featuring a prominent typo. Which is, I suspect, how history may judge this presidency. If we’re not all dead.

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