Trump’s Bad “60 Minutes” Interview and Worse Economic Policy

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President Trump gave scarily bad answers in his “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl. But it’s what his administration and fellow Republicans are doing with respect to economic policy that’s truly terrifying. (Photo Credit: Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The way President Donald Trump operates, it’s not like many of the remarks he made during his recent interview with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes were particularly surprising or groundbreaking. Many of his comments were riffs on the same songs he has sung before.

Even if they weren’t very earth-shattering or shocking, meanwhile, Trump’s comments were nonetheless disappointing to hear/read as an American who doesn’t share the same set of values. Stahl’s questions ranged across a fairly wide set of topics, but here are some of Trump’s most noteworthy insights:

Trump “doesn’t know” that humans have a role in climate change.

Pres. Trump seemed to walk back one-time comments he made that climate change is a “hoax.” In the same breath, however, he expressed doubt that it’s manmade, and when Stahl pressed him on the overwhelming evidence that it does exist and that we’re contributing to it, he suggested that this climate change could simply reverse somehow and that the scientists advancing the consensus theory have a “very big political agenda.”

That Trump would feign concern for the effects a shift away from fossil fuels might have on American jobs is commendable, at least by his standards. Trying to effectively deny our hand in climate change as part of a political agenda when the scientific consensus is such a strong one, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thinking we don’t need at this stage in the game when more urgent action was needed yesterday.

Trump suggested there could be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if found they were behind the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but didn’t provide specifics.

Trump admitted it was possible the Saudi government was behind the murder of Khashoggi, and indicated the vehement denial on the part of the Saudis. He then hinted that weapons deals could be at stake, but as he did with concerns about climate change, he pivoted to worrying about jobs at companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. So, while he acknowledged the possibility of sanctions, Trump doesn’t seem all that committed to endangering business ties with Saudi Arabia because of it. Astonishment of astonishments there.

At this writing, reportedly, the Saudis are preparing to admit Khashoggi died during a botched interrogation. Obviously, the interview was taped prior to these reports. What was worst about this segment, though, was that Trump said the matter was especially troubling because Khashoggi was a journalist, even making an aside about how strange it must be to hear him say that. Yeah, it is, and it comes off as more than a little disingenuous after regularly railing at members of the press and calling them the “enemy of the American people.” Pardon us if we’re not especially enthralled by your promises that you’ll get to the bottom of his disappearance.

Trump claimed that Barack Obama put us on a path to war with North Korea, and qualified his “love” for Kim Jong-un.

Evidently, under President Obama, we were going to war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but now—BOOM!—no more war and Kim is talking about nuclearization. You’re welcome, America. Get that Nobel Peace Prize nice and shiny for “the Donald.”

Within Trump’s logic, it’s his trust for Kim that has been such an essential diplomatic asset. This despite the possibility raised by Stahl that North Korea hasn’t gotten rid of any weapons and may actually be building more. Trump, attempting to further distance himself from Obama, intimated there are no plans to ease sanctions, but Stahl persisted on the topic of Trump’s stated “love” for North Korea’s despotic leader. Trump tried to minimize the language he used as a figure of speech, but Stahl belabored North Korea’s horrid human rights record under Kim and his father.

Trump’s admiration for dictators is nothing new, but hearing him downplay talk of gulags and starvation is yet bothersome. More on this to come.

Trump still has no idea how tariffs work, nor does he apparently have high regard for his supposed allies.

President Trump insisted China is close to negotiating on tariffs and other matters of trade. In the meantime, though, President Xi Jinping (another leader with dictatorial aspirations overseeing a country with questionable regard for human rights) and China are content to retaliate with tariffs, and Stahl questioned how long we will be content to try to strong-arm China into negotiation when it’s American consumers who are bearing the brunt of these tariffs. Is the point to use the people of each country as bargaining chips in an escalating trade war?

Trump argued with Stahl for a while about whether or not he called it a trade war, a skirmish, or a battle, but this is semantics (and he totally f**king did call it a trade war, according to Stahl). Alongside likely overstating our trade deficit with China, Trump once more communicated his faulty understanding re tariffs. What’s more, he seemed ambivalent as to the continued integrity of diplomatic relations with Europe as a function of NATO membership, and grew combative with Stahl on the point of levying tariffs on our allies and inviting disunion. As long as Trump and his advisers hold to the narrative that the United States is being taken advantage of by the rest of the world when it comes to defense spending and trade, the average consumer is the one who will be caught in the middle.

Trump believes that Vladimir Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings.

But only probably. Continuing the earlier conversation about Pres. Trump and his love of autocrats, the man would not commit to saying that he believed Putin was behind attacks on critics and political opponents, professing that he “relies on” Russia and that it’s their country, so it’s essentially their business. I’d be eager to know what precisely he means when he says he relies on them, and it’s possible his drift is a more innocent one, but when so much seems to hint at Trump being compromised by Russian ties, it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This sentiment only grows when considering his hedging on Russian interference in the election and his evasiveness on the Mueller investigation. When prompted by Stahl on meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Trump was quick to rebut by claiming China meddled as well. Even if that were true, however—experts say there is evidence of a pro-Chinese influence campaign at work, but no concrete evidence of Chinese electoral meddling—it’s a deflection. Stahl called him out on this tactic, only to be argued with in the spirit of whataboutism.

Additionally, Trump refused to pledge that he won’t shut down the Mueller investigation. In other words, um, yeah, you should still be worried about Mueller’s fate as special counsel. Particularly if the midterms go poorly for the Republican Party.

That whole family separation thing was all Obama’s fault.

When asked what his biggest regret so far has been, the first thing that jumped to Trump’s mind was not terminating the NAFTA deal sooner. Not the whole taking children away from their parents thing, as Stahl interjected. It’s not exactly mind-bending to witness Trump fail to recognize a policy bent on unmitigated cruelty as his worst mistake, but it still stings like salt in the proverbial wound if you fashion yourself a halfway decent human being.

To make matters worse, Trump defended the policy under the premise that people would illegally enter the United States in droves otherwise. Furthermore, he blamed Barack Obama for enforcing a policy that was on the books. To be fair, Obama’s record on immigration is not unassailable, as his administration was responsible for its share of deportations. But separating families is a new twist on trying to enact “border security,” and it ignores the perils immigrants face upon return to their native land, perils we have helped exacerbate. Try as he might to escape it, Donald Trump and his presidency will be inexorably tied to this heartless policy directive.

The country is divided, but that’s the stupid Democrats’ fault.

According to Trump, the country was very polarized under Obama, but now on the strength of the economy, he can see it coming together. You’re welcome, America. Stahl questioned him on this criticism of Obama and the Democrats’ contributions to political rancor when he and his Republican cronies just won on the Kavanaugh confirmation and he proceeded to immediately lambast the Dems. Trump predictably deflected by saying it’s the Democrats who don’t want the country to heal. They started it! They were so mean to Brett Kavanaugh! What a bunch of stupid babies!

In case you had any doubts, Trump doesn’t give two shits about Christine Blasey Ford.

Continuing with theme of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Lesley Stahl addressed Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford’s testimony before Congress, asking why he felt he had to make fun of her. Trump says she was treated with great respect. Stahl was, like, really? Trump was, like, anyway, who cares? We won.

That’s right, ladies and germs—the ends justify the means. It’s all about the W. You heard him.

The White House is definitely not in chaos. Definitely not.

The on-air portion of the 60 Minutes interview ended with Stahl asking the president about the media reports of a White House in turmoil. Three guesses as to his reply. If you said “fake news,” you’d be correct. (If you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?) Trump also didn’t seem fazed about the high turnover within his administration. Hey, sometimes it just doesn’t work out! Along these lines, Trump wouldn’t commit to James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, nor would he give a ringing endorsement to Jeff “I’m Only a Racist on Days That End in ‘Y'” Sessions. Not that I have any great love for either of those men, but it’s still messed up when a man like Trump expects unflinching loyalty and yet stands by his appointees only when it’s convenient.

Trump also opined on his feelings of distrust of White House officials, consummate with his assessment of Washington, D.C. as a “vicious, vicious place.” Good news, though, fellow Americans: he now feels very comfortable as POTUS. Many of us might be continuously on edge, but he’s right as rain. Well, at least there’s that.


To some, Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview with Donald Trump was disappointing in that it didn’t break new ground. Sure, it further revealed that he is ignorant of how basic economic and scientific principles work, that he possesses a predilection for strongmen, that he will blame Barack Obama for pretty much anything, that he holds absolutely no regard for survivors of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence, and that he has the temperament (and possibly the intellect) of a grade-school child. But we already knew all this. As noted earlier, it’s more salt in the wound for members of the so-called Resistance, but short of potentially alienating our allies with his public comments—which is not to be undersold or encouraged, mind you—but comparatively, his words are sticks and stones.

It’s where Trump’s actions and those of his administration have effect that should truly frighten us, meanwhile. As he so often does, Matt Taibbi provides excellent insight into the area of biggest concern: the U.S. economy. Stahl noted in voiceovers during the interview that Trump loves to talk about America’s economic success. After all, it makes him look good. Never mind that he may have a limited role in that success and that he inherited favorable conditions from his predecessor, but he wouldn’t be the first president to take advantage of others’ successes.

Trump was notably silent, conversely, when the Dow recently fell 1,377 points over two days amid a stock market sell-off. As Taibbi writes, this event is but a prelude to a larger economic disaster, and it stands at the confluence of three irreconcilable problems. The first is the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as a means of trying to rein in the excess of large companies taking advantage of quantitative easing and zero-interest-rate policy.

This might not be such a problem except for the second factor: the Trump/GOP tax cuts. As economic experts warned prior to their passage, the cuts were based on overly enthusiastic projections of economic growth. When the inevitable tax shortfall occurred, we would need to start borrowing more, as is already underway. Higher interest rates on increased borrowing means more of an economic burden.

All of this comes to a head when we consider the third problem: tariffs. To try to make up for the issues raised by higher borrowing rates and a revenue shortfall, the government this week debuted new Treasury bills in the hopes of generating immediate cash. The potential conflict arises when considering China is the primary buyer of U.S. T-bills and holds over a trillion dollars in American debt.

The assumption is that Chinese demand for Treasury notes will remain unchanged despite the tariffs. However, as Matt Taibbi and Lesley Stahl and others are right to wonder, what happens if the trade war’s tariffs hurt the Chinese economy to the point that China no longer can or is willing to subsidize our skyrocketing debt? It’s a purely theoretical question at this point, and a rhetorical one at that, but the fallout from the intersection of these trends could be devastating. Taibbi puts a cap on the gravity of the situation thusly:

As we’ve seen in recent decades, even smart people are fully capable of driving the American economy off a cliff. What happens when the dumbest administration in history gets a turn at the wheel? Maybe last week wasn’t the time to start panicking. But that moment can’t be far.

Ominous, but perhaps not hyperbole. Noting what happened last time when the economy nearly collapsed, when the next disaster strikes, it will undoubtedly be we, the other 99%, that pays most dearly. Especially as Mitch McConnell and his Republican partners would have it, now clearly eying cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

President Trump may enjoy schmoozing with Lesley Stahl and giving bad answers his base will eat up now. In the short to long term, though, the terrible choices of his administration and his party could prove costly to the American economy, and by association, the global economy. Though he undoubtedly won’t meet with our same burden, he should at least take more of the blame when it does.

Putin International Defense Spending in Perspective (See What I Did There?)

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Why are NATO members beefing up their defense spending? Not because of the man in the White House and his temper tantrums. Think this man instead. (Photo Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko)

In the era of President Donald Trump (still jarring to read or hear, by the way), every piece of news—good or bad—runs the risk of being exaggerated or sensationalized, especially when and where there are issues to sell and clicks to generate. Of course, there is also the risk of underselling the danger Trump presents to America, to democracy, and to the world at large, among those who either fail to comprehend this threat, or fail to be able to confront it in all the terror it induces. As it must be stated and restated, Trump and his presidency are not normal. His war against the media is not normal. His personal gain from use of his properties because of his refusal to divest is not normal. His nationalist rhetoric and the hate and violence he encourages is not normal. Pres. Trump, in obscuring, obstructing, and distracting from his ties to Russia, is potentially at the heart of a scandal yet worse than Watergate. He’s a fraud, and details like fake covers of Time magazine with his image on them hanging in his golf clubs would be laughable and piteous if this man weren’t such a prick and President of the United freaking States. Donald Trump can and should be resisted for these reasons and more.

As specifically regards attributing good news to Trump, caution should be taken before ascribing any boon to him or any other POTUS, for that matter. In the weeks after Trump’s election, the stock market was on the rise, prompting chatter about a “Trump bump.” That bump extended even to his first 100 days, with Trump enjoying the biggest increase in stock prices since George W. Bush. The seeming justification for this was the perception or prediction that Trump’s policies would generally favor business, hence reason for optimism on Wall Street. Since then—and not merely to kill one’s buzz—the Trump bump, as measured by the “yield curve” plotting the difference between 10-year and 2-year Treasury bond yields, has flattened out, and if analysts like Steve Denning are accurate in their assessment of what’s going on economically in the U.S., this kind of rise in stocks and shareholder value does nothing for jobs and stands to depress the real economy. Not to mention that “much of the markets’ movements arises from circumstances beyond any president’s control.” As #45 would have us believe, he inherited a real mess from Barack Obama, and the initial upward surge we saw was nothing short of miraculous, but the truth is Trump stepped into a better situation than either of his predecessors. Dubya was dealing with the dot-com bubble burst when he began his tenure. Obama was dealing with the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 to 2009 to whenever one presumes it actually ended. Ol’ Cheeto Voldemort has had to deal with—what?—BuzzFeed and CNN being mean to him?

Along these lines, the recent announcement of a move by NATO members to increase defense spending by some $12 billion has less to do with Donald Trump than he or his supporters might otherwise lead you to believe. In a piece for Foreign Policy, Robbie Gramer suggests it is another autocratic strongman at the heart of this 4.3% uptick: Vladimir Putin. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, this increase, part of an ongoing upward trend, is specifically designed not only to confront terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, but to handle Russian aggression. According to sources cited in Gramer’s piece, the 2014 invasion of Crimea, in particular, was a catalyst for a pledge for NATO members to raise their level of spending to at least 2% of GDP spending by 2024 if not there already, with a number of governments putting plans into motion before November’s upset presidential victory. (It should not surprise you to know that the United States has already long since eclipsed that threshold.) Per Mr. Stoltenberg, these monies will be used for new military equipment and exercises better designed to address emergency situations and other unexpected events (like, um, invasions), as well as to fund pensions and salaries for troops.

In enumerating the justifications for this more robust commitment to defense spending, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg actually acknowledged President Trump’s focus. No, seriously. He is quoted thusly: “I welcome the strong focus of President Trump on defense spending and burden sharing, because it is important that we deliver. European allies should invest more in defense not only to please the United States, but they should invest more in defense because it is in their own interests.” OK, give the devil his due—even if to be merely diplomatic about the whole situation—but how much credit do we give a man for being right for the wrong reasons? Let’s assume Donald Trump has progressed, shall we say, in his thinking about NATO. It’s not a high bar to clear, mind you, but it would be an upward trajectory. As Robbie Gramer outlines, Trump not only characterized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization once upon a time as “obsolete,” but criticized its various members for essentially owing back dues and for intimating that the U.S. might not come to the rescue if they didn’t pony up. Ivo Daalder, former American ambassador to NATO, took to Trump’s favorite medium to drop some knowledge on him. Among his salient points:

  • The United States decides how much it wants to spend for NATO’s benefit. That is, no one forced America to spend the way it has.
  • The other member nations don’t pay the U.S. for its services. It’s not a transaction.
  • All NATO signatories have pledged to spend 2% or more of their GDP on defense spending. Besides the U.S.A., four already do (Estonia, Greece, Poland, and the United Kingdom), and the others are on their way.
  • America does commit a fair amount of financial resources to the purpose of NATO, but this is because it is in the country’s best interest to make sure Europe is safe. Much in the same way European leaders see increasing defense spending as vital for their own sense of security—and not merely to appease the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In short, sharing is caring, and for Trump to envision the rest of NATO as taking advantage of the United States’ hospitality is for him to seriously mischaracterize the whole situation. It should be noted, however, that Pres. Trump has since backtracked on his wholesale condemnation of NATO and has committed to endorsing Article 5, the NATO mutual defense clause. The administration has also earmarked nearly $5 billion in its 2018 defense budget for activities amenable to NATO’s cause and Europe’s protection.

Still, while the above elements are promising signs, let’s not lose sight of the 800-pound Russian dancing bear in this equation. On the subject(s) of Russia, Vladimir Putin, hacking, and trying to influence our presidential elections, Donald Trump, as he and other Republicans are wont to due when deflecting, has pointed to Barack Obama’s culpability in these matters. To be fair, the sanctions and other remedial actions approved by the Obama administration in response to evidence of Russian hacking have been criticized by any number of experts as fairly tepid. Nevertheless, as seems to be the pattern with Trump, his lashing out at anyone who is not a staunch loyalist is almost certainly a case of the pot proverbially calling the kettle black. At a recent hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Nicholas Burns, a former State Department official and your company’s computer guy, testified with respect to Russian meddling in America’s elections. At one point, James Risch, Republican senator from Idaho, pressed Burns ever-so-partisanly on his statement that the “Obama administration should have reacted more quickly and vigorously” to Russian hacking, as it was aware that such attempts to undermine American institutions were going on.

Burns, however, maintained that part of the problem in Obama’s dilatory response was resistance from top congressional Republicans, notably the toad-faced Mitch McConnell, in going further on action against Russia despite the administration informing them of the hacking. Furthermore, he offered, while Obama and Co. could have done more, at least he did something to address the Russian threat. Pres. Trump has downplayed the seriousness of Russia’s involvement in our affairs, with he and some of his spokespeople even going so far as to call it all a “hoax,” but while buffoons like Tom Cotton may paint Trump as a superior Commander-in-Chief to Obama because of action in Afghanistan and Syria and for calling for steep (and overstated) domestic defense spending increases, Nicholas Burns is right to be concerned that not only will Trump refuse to act against his BFF Putin, but will even roll back those sanctions approved by Barack Obama, tepid as they were.

What’s striking about this exchange between Risch and Burns is that this is an example of a conflict that is being fought along the lines of the political divide, when matters of national security and defense should be above such posturing. If Cotton, Risch and their Republican colleagues in Congress were really concerned about protecting our homeland and holding people accountable, they would go after Donald Trump just as hard as they rail against Obama. You know, provide some checks and/or balances. After all, if this were Hillary Clinton in the White House instead of Trump, these kinds of hearings would be incessant and aimed directly at her actions. Just look at how the marathon hearing on Benghazi played out, a public event which was as much spectacle as it was legitimate inquiry into what happened to our diplomatic mission in Libya. And Hillary wasn’t even in office at that time! While we’re at it, let’s relitigate other questionable uses of our defense capabilities. Like, for instance, that time we got involved in a war in Iraq based on intelligence that proved faulty. That was a real humdinger.

Indeed, pretty much everything points to the assertion that we as Americans should be concerned about Russia’s attempts to weaken the United States of America, such that a unified defense on the domestic front (Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike) as well as a cooperative approach on the international front (i.e. NATO) is advisable. It is therefore highly disconcerting that, in advance of an upcoming planned meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, the former doesn’t have a set agenda. Because, as Yochi Dreazen, deputy managing editor of Vox’s foreign affairs wing, and others have illuminated, the latter definitely does. Among the things Putin seeks for himself and Russia are 1) that prized roll-back of sanctions for the invasion and annexation of Crimea, which prompted NATO’s rush to increase defense spending in the first place; 2) allowing him to operate more freely in Syria (nothing about a freer Putin sounds good, but maybe that’s just me); 3) the U.S. distancing itself from NATO (ol’ Vladdy is, as it turns out, not a huge fan); and 4) kindly look past trying to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. Presumably, then Putin would shrug his shoulders as if to say, “Come on—you know you want to.”

Almost objectively, one should expect, irrespective of political leanings, the answer to the above requests should be: 1) No; 2) No; 3) No; and 4) F**k no—why? But this is 2017, this is Donald Trump, this is Vladimir Putin, and honestly, do you have any great confidence that Trump will do what is in the United States’ and Europe’s best interests? Whether because Trump has admiration for Putin as a leader who rules with an iron fist and who uses his stature to neutralize the opposition—permanently, even—or because there is some illicit connection between Trump and Russia which compels him to kowtow to Moscow’s whim, or both, there is every reason to worry that the end result of this heart-to-heart will favor Russia at our expense. Despite his contention that he is the consummate deal-maker, if Donald Trump’s ability to “negotiate” a credible replacement of ObamaCare through Congress given majorities in both the House and Senate is any indication, then he’s, um, not all he’s cracked up to be. Now put him up against the likes of Vladimir Putin, a man Dreazen refers to as a “master tactician,” and one’s imagination may wander down some dark paths if one lets it. Or it could be a Putin-Trump love-fest. Anything could happen, which both inspires a small amount of optimism Trump might stumble upon the right course of action, and well-justified terror.

There’s another dread-provoking level to the drama inherent in U.S.-Russia relations, though, in addition to what Trump and his administration won’t do, and what Putin wants. As Yochi Dreazen explains, it’s how Vladimir Putin and others who think like him view the United States—and it’s not merely as a patsy, either. Citing intel by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, there apparently is a laundry list of “offenses” for which Russia suspects the U-S-of-A, including but not limited to the Arab Spring; the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, currently in exile in Russia and wanted for high treason; revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Ukraine; and wars in Iraq, Kosovo, and Libya. Oh, and Putin thinks we are actively plotting to kick him out, too. In other words, Vladimir Putin sees the United States as an enemy. This is the man that Donald Trump has consistently exempted from criticism. This is the kind of threat that Trump has largely downplayed and over which he has resisted the credibility of the very intelligence agencies designed to furnish him with viable information. This is more than a passing concern, but it’s doubtful that our President fully grasps the very concept.


Returning to the beginning discussion of bad news vs. good news, the ultimate bad news is Donald Trump is still President of the United States, as it has been every week since he’s been elected. With respect to our relationship with our allies, both in Europe and elsewhere, Trump apparently likes to test the bounds of our diplomatic relations by very publicly calling out our allies, particularly when he feels that the United States is being taken advantage of. Which is pretty much all the time. Gotta keep producing those sound bites and playing to the base, eh? Trump’s most recent victim, if you will, is South Korea and newly-elected president Moon Jae-in, chosen to fill the void left by the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Given his rhetoric on North Korea, there was some degree of expectation that Kim Jong-un and his nation’s ever-present threat would be more of a centerpiece of this meeting. Instead, very little was said by #45 in terms of specifics on a strategy for how to deal with North Korea, and the South Korean president was made to be lectured about its trade policies. With reporters entering the room just as Trump was essentially dressing down his South Korean counterpart. Yeah. Moon Jae-in agreed insofar as being open to revisit KORUS, the five-year-old treaty between the two nations, but what this means for the fate of the treaty and the reception of these events in Seoul is unclear. I know if I were on the South Korean side of things, I would certainly be hesitant to want to deal with President Trump—or even invite him to my country. And you could forget about buying any crappy Trump Home products.

The good news is that Congress may actually be willing to push back against Donald Trump on certain aspects of foreign policy, particularly regarding Russia. Maybe. The Senate just approved by an overwhelming margin a bill which would prevent Trump from rolling back sanctions on Russia. This still has to clear the House without getting watered down significantly, mind you, but that this measure had so much Republican support in the Senate may be telling of what GOP lawmakers think of the President’s temperament. Even more surprising was a vote of the House Appropriations Committee to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has allowed the United States to essentially continuously fight wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, with the thinking that this now-15-year-old provision is too broad and should be debated/updated to reflect the current situation with ISIS and al-Qaeda. Of course, when not being criticized for being all but symbolic gestures, some of the actions taken in departure from Trump’s proposals would actually increase the defense budget. That doesn’t exactly enthrall me as a progressive. Still, that there is thinking outside Trump’s proposals and outside blind party loyalty gives one the minutest sense of hope.

Outside of Trump. Invoking this piece’s title, that seems to be the optimal perspective to take, especially when it comes to the global economy and defense spending. Don’t assign Donald Trump more blame than he deserves for factors largely outside his control, but certainly don’t give him more credit when our European allies are bolstering their defense spending—not when they already have made plans to do so and when the shadow of Vladimir Putin looms largest of all. And for the sake of our country’s national security, pray that whole G20 meeting goes well. Fingers crossed.

These Things Need Buzzers or Mute Buttons, and Other Observations from the First Presidential Debate

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Sure, they’re all smiles now, but belying their grins for the photo op is a shared unquenchable thirst for winning. And designer suits. They like expensive clothing. (Photo retrieved from foxnews.com.)

Well, the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has come and gone and the results are in—people are curled up in the fetal position because one of these two will become our next President and they don’t really like either of them! OK, so maybe I’m not speaking for everyone watching, but I tend to wonder how much what was said in the debate will actually change people’s opinions on whom they plan to vote for come November. As for who won the debate, I’m not here to try to pass judgment. After all, I’ve watched boxing fights after which I was pretty sure one participant should emerge victorious because he seemed to dominate the other boxer, but left to the judges’ decision, the actual results were completely the other way around. If you ask the candidates and their campaigns, each side would definitely say they were the winners. For what it’s worth, early polling suggests the American audience thought Hillary won, though I’m more loath as the days go by to trust the veracity of some of these surveys, if I may say so.

But like I said, I’m not here to crown a winner. I seek only to provide commentary where I think it warranted, as well as to offer suggestions for how future presidential debates may be improved. With this behind us, let’s take a narrower look at what went down in the first presidential debate—you know, if we can stand it. Might I suggest some unhealthy snacks or some liquor to sustain you as you read through?

UNITED STATES OF JOE’S ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY COMMENTS ON THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE

1. First of all, let me confess that I didn’t actually watch the debate, which was starting before I had even gotten home from class. To be fair, though, I probably would have been distracted by watching my Fantasy Football team’s hopes of a win go down in flames anyway. To the tandem of Devonta Freeman and Coby Fleener, who proved instrumental in my defeat, let me say that I hate you both with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system (not really), since I didn’t see the event live, I can’t really comment on what kind of job Lester Holt did as moderator. The general response of viewers and pundits, though, seemed to be a positive appraisal of Holt’s handling of the affair. Although let’s be fair—next to the dumpster fire that was Matt Lauer’s presiding over the Commander-in-Chief Forum, pretty much anything halfway decent would feel like a great success. Kudos, Lester! You’re better at taking Donald Trump to task than Jimmy Fallon!

Achieving Prosperity

2. As you might already know/remember from viewing the debate on television, the opening segment was devoted to “Achieving Prosperity.” Sounds like something in Trump’s wheelhouse, doesn’t it? The candidates were first asked about what they would do to stimulate job creation. Hillary Clinton gave her familiar lines: the wealthy need to pay their fair share, let’s invest in infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, affordable child care, debt-free college, close tax loopholes, was there anything on the Democratic Party platform I didn’t check off? Donald Trump, meanwhile, railed about China and Mexico and vowed to cut taxes, and also said he was going to renegotiate a lot of trade deals. Because it’s just that simple.

When pressed specifically on how we get companies to bring jobs back to America, Trump was, well, largely incoherent, and pivoted to the notion NAFTA was a bad trade deal. Which may be true, but that doesn’t answer the question. The best the man of the orange and thin skin could come up with was that he wouldn’t let corporations leave, but whether this involves the threat of taxes should they relocate, or literally stopping them at the airport and barring them from getting aboard their overseas flights, Trump’s remedy is woefully impractical.

3. The candidates, under Lester Holt, moved swiftly onto the next question. Well, at least the moderator tried to make that happen. Holt attempted to segue into a discussion about taxes, but first, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had to argue about taxes before they could, well, argue about taxes. To be fair to Clinton, Trump started it, talking about how Clinton would jack up taxes and he would slash them and how wonderful that would be for the US of A. Hillary then countered by saying Donald’s loose semblance of an economic plan would jack up the national debt, while hers would reduce it. Then Donald Trump was all, like, nuh-uh. And Hillary Clinton was all, like, yuh-huh. And then Trump was all, like, whatever! When the dust was allowed to settle, Trump tried to suggest that the wealthy were going to create tremendous jobs. (Except they don’t.) He also—and give El Diablo his due—mentioned eliminating the carried interest loophole, by which wealthy hedge fund managers are allowed to claim a more favorable tax rate by classifying their income as capital gains, even though there is no legal basis for this, and even though President Obama could apparently totally f**king end this practice with little more than a phone call but hasn’t. Then Clinton was alleged to have been given two minutes to respond, but her opponent wouldn’t shut his big yap.

Eventually, what passed for a conversation moved to the subject of Donald Trump’s tax returns, which, as I’m sure you know, he still hasn’t gone and released. Once more, Trump claimed he couldn’t comply with this request because he is under audit. If there’s one thing I have stressed in this blog, perhaps other than the logical fallacy of saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter,” it’s that THIS IS NOT A VIABLE EXCUSE FOR TRUMP NOT TO RELEASE HIS TAXES. THE IRS SAYS IT’S PERFECTLY OK. Trump’s stupid explanations and deflecting with mentions of private E-mail servers notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton brilliantly took the opportunity to insert possible reasons as to why Trump is dodging calls for his tax returns like he (allegedly) dodged the draft. Maybe he isn’t worth as much as he says he is. (Highly likely.) Maybe he isn’t as charitable as he would have us believe. (I can almost guarantee it.) Perhaps, quoth Hillary, it is his hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to Wall Street and foreign banks, or that he has paid little to nothing in taxes over the years.

Donald Trump spins this last notion as a virtue, that he’s a smart businessman. Not only isn’t it like he cleverly came up with the idea for any loopholes he exploits, however, but this also puts him at odds with average Americans who aren’t wealthy enough to be able to afford such preferential treatment. You’re not smart in this regard, Mr. Trump. You’re lucky you were born rich with a daddy who bailed you out when you made dumb decisions, and that you could file for bankruptcy (also not your invention) the rest of the time.

America’s Direction

4. The second of the first presidential debate’s triptych of topics was devoted to “America’s direction,” which, not for nothing, is a depressingly vague category. Not to mention it invites the retort from the peanut gallery at home that the country’s direction is headed straight to “the shitter.” But I digress. Lester Holt first confronted the candidates with the question of how the United States can heal its bitter racial divides. Hillary Clinton stuck to, ahem, her guns, by primarily calling for more comprehensive gun reform. She also spoke in broad strokes about the need to improve community relations between police and civilians, as well as the need to address systemic bias in the quality of education among different groups and to deal with glaring disparities in arrests and sentencing of people of color. Beyond the gun issue, I’m not so sure how convincing her answer was or should be, but as usual, it sounded good in a superficial way.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, spoke about how we need law and order—and he wasn’t talking about Special Victims Unit starring Mariska Hargitay. He also casually dropped the suggestion that stop-and-frisk is a good idea, even though it’s ineffective, unconstitutional, and unfairly targets African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Hillary responded with more of how she opened the segment—essentially pandering to the minority vote. Next, when prompted by Holt to comment on implicit racism, Clinton correctly asserted that we all suffer from it to a degree, but you could tell she was framing it in a way so as to drive home the notion she respects police and, at the same time, try not to further alienate potential undecided voters who possess a great deal of respect for officers of the law and, perhaps, are OK with, you know, the occasional murdering of unarmed black citizens.

Then, Donald Trump—ugh. Look, I could try to parse through the gobbledygook that was his response for a coherent message, but let me just pick out the highlights. Trump gave a shout-out to the NRA. He made a quick, offhand remark about no-fly and watch lists. He, apropos of nothing, invoked Clinton’s use of the term “super-predator.” He argued about how crime was going up in New York City without his beloved stop-and-frisk in place—even though this is patently false. And at the end of all this, Lester Holt actually reminded the Republican Party nominee the conversation was supposed to be about “race.” If this isn’t an indictment of Donald Trump’s inability to provide consistent, coherent answers on topics that make him uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.

5. And then came the part when Lester Holt asked Donald Trump about all the times he pushed the narrative that Barack Obama was born in Africa and demanded he produce his birth certificate just to prove him and other conspiracy theorists wrong. Now, before we get to Trump’s part in the whole “birther” controversy, let’s acknowledge that there is a more complicated truth to Hillary Clinton’s side of the story to which the GOP nominee was referring. Once upon a time, in 2008, when HRC was running against Obama for the Democratic Party nomination, her campaign did help to spread this myth. Much as the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton 2016 campaign were apt to latch on to the idea that, say, Bernie Sanders is an atheist to help her chances with more religious voters, it should be no great surprise that Hillary and her handlers would try to gain any advantage to win.

The notion that Hillary Clinton, anyone who has worked on her campaign, or anyone currently serving such a function came up with birtherism, however, is decidedly untrue. The origins are indeed murky as to who or what exactly devised this whole delegitimizing strategy, but regardless, if there was one person who took this awful baton and ran with it, it’s Donald J. Trump. As Holt even noted in his initial question, Trump persisted with the birther train of thinking—even when most Americans were satisfied that Barack Obama was, in fact, born on American soil. That he “succeeded” in getting Obama to produce formal proof of the circumstances behind his coming into this world is an achievement of dubious distinction. Donald Trump should be as proud of his role in the birther movement as he should be of Trump Steaks. And you can’t even eat birtherism. Believe me—I’ve tried.

Securing America

6. Last but not least, Lester Holt moderated a segment called “Securing America”—between one candidate who issued E-mails on classified matters from one or more unsecured private servers and unencrypted devices, and another who suggested the Russians hack his opponent to find missing/deleted messages. (I hear you banging your head against the desk in frustration through the screen over there, and I second that notion.) Things being what they are, Hillary Clinton uttered something vague about “making it clear” to other nations, especially China, Iran and Russia, that we’re not going to take their hacking BS. Donald Trump, as usual, didn’t really answer the question, and implied that maybe it wasn’t Russia who was behind the hacks—even though it’s entirely f**king likely that it was Russia, amirite?

Clinton, in her rebuttal, quickly pivoted to talk of more air strikes against ISIS, because if there’s one thing HRC likes, it’s blowing up parts of other countries. Trump, in his rebuttal to the rebuttal, um, blamed Hillary again for causing ISIS—which indirectly may be partially true, but she sure had a lot of help. Then Hillary Clinton pointed out her opponent supported the Iraq War. Donald Trump said he didn’t—but he’s a big f**king liar. Clinton said we’re working with NATO. Trump effectively said NATO can kiss his ass, and invoked, of all people Sean Hannity in his self-defense about support for the Iraq War. After that, they argued about who has the better temperament of the two for the job. I don’t know—this was probably the low point of the debate for me personally, because I think both of them have shitty temperaments. Go ahead—argue about how you’re both going to help perpetuate our country’s involvement in unending wars in the Middle East in elsewhere, while I curl up into a ball underneath my bed, sobbing gently to myself.

7. In the second half of the “Sky is Falling” segment, as I like to call it, Lester Holt began with Donald Trump about President Obama’s considerations of changing America’s policy on first use of nuclear weapons (as in not using nukes first), asking Humpty Trumpty what he thought about the current policy. “The Donald” rambled on about not “taking anything off the table” and invoking China to help deal with North Korea, before launching into a tirade against our deal with Iran and our cash giveaway which has been likened to a ransom payment for American hostages. Hillary Clinton responded by acknowledging that problems do exist within our relationship with Iran, but that they involve more than just our nuclear deal, and furthermore, that there are other more global concerns to contemplate. She also fired back at Trump’s criticisms of the deal, saying he talked an awful lot about how bad it was without providing a suitable alternative.

As it apparently inevitably had to, the conversation was then steered to who had the right “temperament” and “stamina” to be President of the United States given the gravity of these matters, not to mention Holt’s probing about Donald Trump’s earlier statement that he didn’t think Hillary Clinton has “the presidential look.” Le sigh. Maybe this was the low point in the debate, because after all, much of this is shenanigans. Hillary doesn’t know how to negotiate. Donald can’t be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Hillary is experienced, but it’s bad experience. Donald has repeatedly degraded women. Hillary has cooties. Donald not only smelt it, but dealt it as well. See what I mean? It’s disenfranchising hearing 60- and 70-year-olds talk like catty teenagers when they’re vying for the country’s top political office, but that’s really the vibe I, for one, get, at least.

The debate was brought to a close by Lester Holt asking both candidates if they would support their rival should he or she win. Hillary Clinton said she supports any democratic result—BUT PLEASE DON’T VOTE FOR THAT ASS-CLOWN TRUMP. Donald Trump said he would, sure, THOUGH THAT CLINTON BROAD DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS. Great. You don’t like each other, we don’t like you. Let’s bring on the shots of alcohol already, shall we?


2010 -- Randy Sager
If presidential debates were run like ESPN’s Around the Horn, Donald Trump would be muted ’til the cows come home. (Photo retrieved from espnmediazone.com.)

As noted earlier, I’m not going to get too caught up in who won or who lost, though I’m pretty sure you could tell from the tenor of my responses who had the better performance in the first presidential debate. Of course, all this focus on “winning” and “losing” only takes us so far anyway. First of all, while the winner may stand to get a bump in the polls, this effect may be temporary, not to mention polling data doesn’t always translate equivalently to votes (in fact, often enough, the actual results are significantly different from what even exit polls predict). More importantly, a large swath of the audience likely believes that no matter who wins the debates—or, for that matter, the election—America loses anyway. So, who won the debate? Who cares, that’s who.

From my point of view, aside from any morsels of substance I can find in all that has been said in these debates throughout the campaign season, my interest in this format for political discussions lies in how the whole process may be improved. The following suggestions are ones you and likely scores of others amateur political analysts have come up with, but nonetheless, bear stating or repeating for the sake of concreteness.

JOE IS STILL NOT DONE WRITING, AND HAS SOME IDEAS FOR MAKING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES BETTER

If they won’t stop talking, mute ’em

The sports talk show Around the Horn on ESPN, in addition to using a subjective scoring system whereby host Tony Reali awards participants points based on the perceived strength of their arguments, is known for its inclusion of a mute button that cuts off a player’s mic for ten seconds when he or she says something disagreeable to Reali (self-promotion, in particular, tends to be rewarded with the silent treatment and a loss of points). I feel a similar sort of system could be employed with presidential debates. If one of the candidates, say, interrupts incessantly (cough, Donald Trump, cough), he or she can be zapped for 10-second increments, or even could be given a more prolonged time-out if he/she can’t behave in a more adult fashion. Not for nothing, but these presidential hopefuls are discussing topics that may affect millions, if not billions, of people, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars. They should be able to act with a certain amount of dignity if they’re going to be interacting with world leaders—and at the very least, make it easier for us average folks to watch on our televisions.

Throw the red flag

If there’s one thing that fans of different sports teams can agree upon, it’s that referees/umpires routinely blow calls. Some are more egregious than others, but to a certain extent, errors in judgment are understandable given the speed at which professional sports are played. Such is why sports like football have implemented a challenge system whereby coaches can throw a red challenge flag, request that the head referee examine video footage of the play in question of which the ruling is being challenged, and confirm, overturn or let the call stand accordingly.

As fast as human beings and spheroid objects move in sports contexts, lies and misleading statements are fast and furious in presidential debates. In light of this notion, I submit candidates should be afforded two or more fact-checking challenges to use at their discretion. If someone claims he or she never called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” in trade deals, or professes he or she never Tweeted that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, on-site fact-checkers can be consulted to catch candidates in obvious untruths. In fairness, this does run the risk of prolonging already laboriously-long presidential debates, but rather than rely on voters to do their own homework and sift through all of the garbage nominees speak, this could more easily bring the truth to light, as well as shame the prevaricator worse than Cersei Lannister being made to walk the streets of King’s Landing in her birthday suit while her subjects hurl epithets and vegetables at her. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the point.

Wrap it up!

If you’ve seen any award show like the annual Oscars telecast, you know that when winners go up to accept their well-deserved tokens of appreciation, they tend to run long with their speeches. That’s when the orchestra hits them with the hurry-up music, signaling their allotted time has been spent and that they need to call it an acceptance speech. On a similar note, when candidates are about to go over their specified response time, they should first be given a visual warning like a red light, as stand-up comedians might get when performing in a comedy club, and then when they finally do exceed the given number of minutes, how about we hit ’em with a horn? At least some uptempo clarinet or something—the exact instrument can be negotiated. We should let these candidates for public office know when we say “two minutes,” we mean two minutes, gosh darn it! If you want to talk a bunch of nonsense to get around the fact you lack a strong intended policy, do it when millions of people aren’t watching.

PHYSICAL CHALLENGE!

Am I the only one who doesn’t think a Double Dare-esque physical challenge would be a welcome diversion during these debates? Let’s see Donald Trump talk about stamina when he tries to run through a 10-part obstacle course! Or Hillary Clinton wear designer suits when she knows she could get Slimed! Come on, fellow millennials—are you with me?


These are just some small tweaks that I, humbly speaking, believe would really make presidential debates more enjoyable to watch without making these events any less informative. Although judging by this first presidential debate, the proverbial bar to clear may be fairly low. And who knows—with the right changes and better candidates in the future, when we talk about winners of the debate, we can put the American audience in that category. Until then, we can all dream, right?