Don’t Mess with Robert Mueller

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Robert Mueller could probably kill you. Even if he’s just prosecuting you, though, you should still be afraid. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

What did you wish for in advance of 2018? One thing I am hoping for—but not banking on happening by any meansis that Robert Mueller and his team will be allowed to conduct their investigation into possible collusion between members of Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials undisturbed. As time wears on, my concern and the worries of many stand to grow as more and more Republicans begin to voice their opposition to the Mueller probe. Devin Nunes’ apparent assault on the credibility and unbiased work of Mueller and Co. is particularly troublesome for many, as Karoun Demirjian writes for The Washington Post. As you might recall, Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, stepped away from his involvement in leading the Committee’s own investigation into matters of Russia after he was accused of improperly disclosing classified information; this information was related to his own accusation of impropriety on the part of the Obama administration in exposing the identities of individuals tied to Trump on surveillance reports. Since being cleared of wrongdoing, however, per Demirjian, Nunes has stepped up his attacks on Mueller’s team and federal law enforcement agencies working with the probe, and while some Republicans in the House close to Nunes have distanced themselves from his tactics, other GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee seem willing to challenge the Mueller investigation with allegations of corruption.

The basis for any insinuations of bias or improper procedure herein seem to exist with respect to the revelation that members of Robert Mueller’s investigative team—who have since been removed from their roles—exchanged anti-Trump texts. Putting aside what appears to be that minor issue as well as other dubious proof of anti-Trump prejudice such as past criticisms of Trump by an FBI official and donations to Democratic Party candidates, there are those who object to the Mueller probe on the basis that it involves the criminal justice system into the workings of the executive and legislative branches. On both counts, though, there is ample room to debate whether these elements/qualities of the investigation merit a curtailing of or ending to it. David E. Kendall, an attorney at Williams & Connolly LLP, recently authored an opinion piece outlining his case for why Robert Mueller should be left alone. While we’re considering possible prejudice in forming opinions or effecting courses of action, it should be noted that Kendall’s firm represents Bill and Hillary Clinton, and has even since the time of the Kenneth Starr investigation into Bill’s, ahem, affairs.

Nevertheless, I would submit Kendall makes a compelling set of arguments as to why Republican criticism of the Mueller probe is overblown. First of all, on the idea that any anti-Trump prejudice has tainted the investigation:

In his Dec. 24 Sunday Opinion commentary, former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr proposed a “reset” of the Russia investigation in which Congress “steps up” to establish a bipartisan investigative panel and the “executive branch’s approach” changes from criminal law enforcement to some kind of nebulous fact-finding. Despite its bland profession of respect for the probe, Starr’s column was really just a subtler version of suddenly pervasive efforts by Trump apologists to undermine the investigation into Russian tampering with the 2016 election.

The reasons given for Starr’s reset are wholly specious: There is ostensibly a “drumbeat of criticism” aimed at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III which “has become deafening,” including “cascading revelations of anti-Trump bias.” This is true only on Fox News, in President Trump’s tweets and in the shoe pounding of the Freedom Caucus at legislative hearings. The claims of bias amount to some private comments of an FBI official criticizing candidate Trump (and other candidates). Despite the fact that government employees are entitled to have political opinions (so long as they do not interfere with their work, and there was no evidence of this), Mueller promptly removed this official.

The key thought in this reasoning is that there is no proof that any criticisms of Donald Trump as candidate or POTUS have impaired the investigation or have prevented it from being able to fairly assess whether there is evidence of the Trump campaign trying to collude with Russia and sway the 2016 presidential election. The obvious retort is that there is no proof these remarks haven’t compromised Mueller’s probe, but then again, that’s not how the law works—or at least is not how it’s supposed to work. You are innocent until proven guilty, no? In referencing Starr’s column in this way, David Kendall also responds to possible conflicts of interest regarding senior aides to Robert Mueller donating in the past to Democrats’ campaigns—which likewise do not mean the investigation can’t be conducted in a professional manner, as was the case when Starr conducted his own investigation into Bill Clinton’s conduct while at the same time being a Republican donor—and the idea that the FBI deputy director’s wife once ran for a legislative seat with financial backing from a friend of the Clintons, which has little to no bearing on Trump’s matters considering that this relationship has long since been disclosed and cleared, and besides, this deputy director is not even a part of Mueller’s team.

As for the notion championed by Kenneth Starr and others that a bipartisan congressional investigation is preferable to this independent investigation on Robert Mueller’s part, there are any number of ways that Kendall, or you, or I could attack this reason for a “reset” of the Russia probe. Before I get rolling with my pontification, I’ll let Mr. Kendall have the floor first. From the op-ed:

Starr’s misleading call for a “Watergate model” ignores the work of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. It is true that the investigations of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 were generally bipartisan and produced valuable information. But equally important was the work of the Watergate special prosecutor, first Archibald Cox and then Leon Jaworski, who fairly and thoroughly investigated criminal wrongdoing by President Richard M. Nixon and many of his top officials. It was that office’s successful pursuit of the Nixon White House tape recordings all the way through the Supreme Court, and its successful prosecution of several Nixon officials, that finally revealed the facts about Watergate.

So while a thorough, public, fair and bipartisan congressional investigation of Russian tampering would be terrific, good luck with that. Benghazi hearings anyone? The House and Senate intelligence committees have for months been conducting hearings on these issues, but these have been, particularly in the House, partisan, meandering, contentious and closed-door. And calling for a vague “fundamental . . . reset within the halls of the executive branch” on the part of the Trump administration is also utterly unrealistic. Firing the special counsel and all his staff would be the most likely “reset” by this White House.

Especially with the likes of a Trump apologist like Devin Nunes lurking, it would indeed seem unlikely that a fair investigation into Trump and Russia is possible in the current political climate. Either way, though, Kenneth Starr’s deprecation of Mueller, described by David Kendall as “a decorated Marine combat veteran, a Republican and a highly esteemed, long-serving law-enforcement professional,” is curious. I mean, the man was only able to serve as director of the FB-freaking-I for 12 years, a tenure that spanned presidents of different parties. If Robert Mueller, as a Republican, could challenge the George W. Bush White House on the use of unconstitutional domestic wiretapping and could disagree with the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques in questioning terrorists, it is reasonable to assert that the man would be able to put politics aside to assess whether or not Trump and Co. acted specifically to obstruct justice. If the results of the probe thus far are any indication, after all, Mueller’s work has been fruitful indeed. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign director from June to August 2016, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s business associate and deputy of the campaign while Manafort was in charge, have already been charged in connection with the Mueller investigation. And Michael Flynn, the short-tenured Trump National Security adviser, has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacting Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. This would not seem to be small potatoes.

The above doesn’t even include important considerations about those pointing the finger at Robert Mueller, nor does it mention another facet about findings from the American intelligence community that seemingly gets lost in the conversation about the viability of the investigation. With specific regard to Kenneth Starr, for instance, and as David Kendall alludes to, Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton was highly politicized, and as far as Congress goes, the trend seems to have continued into fairly recent times. See also the Benghazi probe. Different Clinton, same (largely speaking) waste of time and other resources. Even more importantly, though, if we believe the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community on Russian meddling in our elections, then there is a formal acknowledgment of a deliberate attempt by Russia to hurt the chances of Hillary Clinton in the election and to disparage her in favor of Donald Trump, as well as to undermine the confidence of the American people in the electoral process. One might well argue U.S. politics has already done its part to grease the proverbial slope of eroding confidence in this institution, so it’s doubtful that the Russians should receive too much credit simply for giving it a push, if you will, but at any rate, the desired effects were achieved. Even if such meddling did not yield the same impact, however, the level of concern about the integrity and security of our electoral process should be very high, for democracy’s sake.

This dovetails into my own common-sense reasoning on the matter of whether Donald Trump and those around him should be above the kind of scrutiny that Robert Mueller’s probe entails. Owing to how serious the issue of corruptibility of the American electoral process isand by this, I mean primarily from foreign sources, though there would certainly seem to be enough to go around on the domestic frontif Republicans and their ilk are truly serious about national security, and not just in the arena of border security and terrorism, they would welcome this investigation. After all, Pres. Trump is presumed innocent, right? Going back to the Karoun Demirjian article about Devin Nunes and characterizations of the House Intelligence Committee investigation, if Democrats’ depictions are true, then numerous flaws plague this look into any possible Trump-Russia connections, including denied requests for documents related to/interviews of key witnesses, as well as a haphazard schedule marked by overlapping interview times that is difficultif not impossibleto follow. As Demirjian characterizes this situation, per critics of the House probe, it all amounts to mere window-dressing to make the investigation seem respectable, but in the end, the key figures behind it already have their mind made up to absolve Trump and undercut Mueller’s examination of the evidence. Assuming the Mueller probe is not an abject waste of time, then, what do we presume is truly motivating resistance from the right to its very existence? Is it pure partisan politics? Or, and not merely to be a conspiracy theorist, do critics of the Mueller investigation fear that Donald Trump and those close to him are actually guilty?


The obvious and present concern with Robert Mueller’s investigation is how Donald Trump—the big fish at the heart of this episode of prosecutorial justice, as many see him—might try to screw with things on his end. It makes the obvious and present follow-up question to this concern, “Well, can Trump fire Mueller?” In a word, kinda? Laura Jarrett, reporting for CNN, explores this subject in a piece (very directly) titled, “Can Donald Trump fire Robert Mueller? And how would it work?” Under special prosecutorial regulations, the President can’t directly remove someone like Mueller—that function would go to the Attorney General. As you might recall, Jeff “Hmm, Maybe I Did Talk to a Russian Ambassador After All” Sessions has recused himself from investigative matters related to the 2016 election, meaning Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller in the first place, would be the one to fire him. Rosenstein, at least from public statements, has indicated that he sees no reason to get rid of Mueller. (For the record, Trump, too, said he has no plans to send Mueller packing, but then again, the man is a lying liar who lies, so take his words with many grains of salt.) So, what Trump could do is fire Sessions, fire Rosenstein, and then the next person up could fire Mueller. Or, getting yet more theoretical, Trump could order the special prosecutorial regulations repealed and then he could fire Mueller himself. I mean, Trump has already broken with any number of conventions—what’s a few more?

The follow-up question to the follow-up question to the aforementioned obvious and present concern, then, is, “Should Donald Trump fire Robert Mueller even if he can?” Jarrett also addresses this, saying that, much as the decision to fire James Comey for apparent political reasons brought Trump additional and unwanted scrutiny, removing Mueller from the investigation would further suggest our President has something to hide. Furthermore, there’s every likelihood that firing Mueller won’t even kill his probe, as FBI Director Christopher Wray would take the reins and would presumably forge ahead with the investigation. The caveat to all this is, constitutionally speaking, the President of the United States is the head of law enforcement as the top dog in the executive branch. Consequently, if Trump were to give absolutely zero f**ks and get rid of Mueller himself, it doesn’t seem like there would be much legal recourse to challenge him on this point. For all the reverence the Constitution inspires, this apparent flaw in its design is one that Trump’s flippant disregard for this cornerstone of American law tests in a major way. The resemblance to Watergate, of course, is readily apparent. With Nixon, though, the man was facing certain impeachment and removal for his misdeeds. With Trump, there’s no same guarantee congressional Republicans would want to see him oustedespecially not after seeing their garbage tax plan get signed into law. By and large, the GOP is getting what it wants from Trump. Should, say, Trump’s approval rating become toxically low, though, or should Republicans lose control of the House, the Senate, or both, maybe the situation changes. That so much control is currently in the hands of President Agent Orange, Devin Nunes, and other sympathetic Republicans, meanwhile, is less than inspiring.

At least in advance of the 2018 midterms, though, it might just behoove Nunes et al. not to mess with Robert Mueller. If the opinions of voters mean anything to them, especially as regards their esteem of Mueller, they could be putting their personal political prospects in danger.

Are the Democrats’ Hopes for 2020 Already Doomed?

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It is happening again. The Democrats are employing the same empty strategy that lost them the last election. (Photo Credit: Andrew Gombert/EPA)

Before I begin, let me acknowledge that, on some level, I already hate myself for writing a piece about the Democratic Party’s prospects for reclaiming the presidency in 2020 when there are other critical elections happening prior to then, namely 2018 mid-terms, which, at this rate, party leadership should be concerned about in merely holding onto what they have let alone regaining seats previously lost. Still, when you have someone as unpopular as Donald Trump in the White House, with people counting down the days until his first term is over, it is perhaps never too early to be thinking ahead to the next presidential election and how eight years of President Trump might be circumvented.

According to Musa al-Gharbi, Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, however, Trump’s re-election may be all but a fait accompli. Writing for The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, al-Gharbi cites four key reasons as to why a Trump 2020 victory is not only entirely possible, but likely. Why, pray tell, is—gulp—Trump probable to be a two-term president?

1.  Voters tend to stick with the default option.

The hope here is that, because Donald Trump and his presidency have been anything but normal, convention might be summarily bucked in this regard again, but Musa al-Gharbi cites some pretty compelling evidence as to why the odds are against the orange one receiving the ol’ heave-ho, chief among them this nugget of fact: since 1932, only once has an incumbent party failed to win a second-term—that of Jimmy Carter and the Dems. To put this a different way, it’s apparently pretty hard to get yourself kicked out of the Oval Office.

2. Despite being unpopular overall, Trump is still popular with the people who voted him in.

Or, as al-Gharbi puts it, “popularity is overrated.” Despite not liking Trump and his personality all that much, many Americans are likely satisfied with the job he’s doing,—or even feel he’s exceeding expectations. I imagine some of you are reading this and are thinking, um, are we talking about the same guy here? We are, and much as members of Congress, unpopular in their own right, tend to get re-elected more often than not, Trump supporters, swayed neither by media accounts of the brewing scandal within the Trump administration nor bits of domestic or foreign policy they may find disagreeable, are liable to come out again in 2020 for their anointed candidate. All this makes for shitty news for Democratic hopefuls in 2018 and 2020. Glad I could lift your spirits, eh?

3. The Democrats don’t really seem to have a strong contender in place.

Elizabeth Warren? Cory Booker? Kirsten Gillibrand? Amy Klobuchar? Joe Biden? Michelle Obama? Hell, Hillary Clinton—again? If any of these possible names suggested by their supporters are leaders in the proverbial clubhouse in terms of viability as a challenger to Donald Trump, it’s not especially evident, nor is it clear that any of these individuals would have that strong of a chance to upend Trump if a follow-up election were held today. The Democratic Party, generally speaking, seems to be suffering from quite the crisis of leadership, with its most popular representatives either constitutionally prohibited from running again (Barack Obama) or not even a self-identifying member of the party (Bernie Sanders). Simply put, there is no galvanizing figure among the Democrats, or one that a majority of the party is willing to rally behind.

4. Yeah, about that whole impeachment idea.

If you can’t beat ’em, disqualify ’em? To be clear, for those who are not express devotees of Pres. Trump, it’s kind of difficult to imagine how he hasn’t, in some shape or fashion, disqualified himself. Be this as it may, though, Musa al-Gharbi succinctly states that Trump is unlikely to be impeached until his second term, if at all, if for no other reason than Republicans hold a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate—and this reality isn’t apt to change after 2018 either. Besides, the options after Trump on the line of succession aren’t all that inspiring. Mike Pence? Paul Ryan? You may as well pick your brand of poison to this effect.


So, we have multiple concrete reasons from an expert in matters of human social behavior as to why Donald Trump will probably continue to be our evil overlord in 2020 and beyond. This invites the question at the heart (and title) of this piece: are the Democrats’ hopes for 2020 already doomed? Before conceding as much, let’s first address how much is in the locus of control of Democrats with respect to why Musa al-Gharbi says Trump should win. Certainly, historical trends are beyond anyone’s reach. Unless, of course, you happen to have built a time machine, and even then, meddling in past affairs is not recommended, as numerous works of science fiction will attest to. Opinions of Trump as president would also appear to be largely outside the realm of Democratic influence—though many of the aforementioned key Democratic figures seem content to beat that horse to a bloody pulp by assailing Mr. CEO-President at the drop of a hat. As for impeachment, meanwhile? The Dems simply don’t have the majorities needed to force the issue. After all, if voters who don’t possess donor-placating motivations aren’t moved to forsake Pres. Trump, there’s a snowball’s chance in Hell Republicans in Congress, yanked to and fro by wealthy conservatives and corporate industry leaders like puppets on strings, will act against #45, particularly when, despite all the tumult of this presidency, they, by and large, have been able to further their pro-business, anti-poor-people-and-minorities agenda.

This leaves reason #3—the Democrats’ rudderless approach to winning elections—as the primary area where the party can control its own destiny. While the crisis of leadership that evidently plagues the Dems is a big problem, perhaps an even larger issue is found in the overall message that leadership within the party is trying to convey. Matt Taibbi, who consistently writes excellent articles for Rolling Stone magazine, recently addressed the proverbial brick wall against which Democrats have been banging their heads, electorally speaking. His latest essay comes after a special election to fill the vacated seat in the House of Representatives for the state of Montana’s at-large congressional district after Ryan Zinke was confirmed as Secretary (and Destroyer) of the Interior. You may have heard about this one. Democrats were optimistic about the prospects of cowboy-hat-wearing singer-songwriter and upstart politician Rob Quist garnering a victory in a red state like Montana and sending a message of repudiation to Donald Trump and the GOP regarding their regressive path forward for America. They were especially encouraged about Quist’s chances after Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, you know, assaulted a reporter after being pressed on the subject of health care and was charged with as much.

And yet, Gianforte ultimately prevailed. We should bear in mind that there are some mitigating circumstances in the results of this special election. Indeed, early voting did count for a significant part of the final tallies, though if you’re thinking this is a reason to dismiss early voting wholesale, you’d arguably be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Taibbi highlights other reasons that have already made the rounds during the post-election Democratic Party sobriety hour, including lack of an infrastructure for the party in Montana, being outspent by conservative PACs, and our good friends gerrymandering and right-wing media. Still, Rob Quist’s loss in spite of bad behavior by his Republican counterpart is not the first of its kind in recent memory, one more exhibit in a disturbing series of GOP wins with seemingly little thought given to character next to overarching ideologies. Taibbi details this trend:

There is now a sizable list of election results involving Republican candidates who survived seemingly unsurvivable scandals to win higher office. The lesson in almost all of these instances seems to be that enormous numbers of voters would rather elect an openly corrupt or mentally deranged Republican than vote for a Democrat. But nobody in the Democratic Party seems terribly worried about this.

Gianforte is a loon with a questionable mustache who body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about the Republican health care bill. He’s the villain du jour, but far from the worst exemplar of the genre. New Yorkers might remember a similar congressional race from a few years ago involving a Staten Island nutjob named Michael Grimm. The aptly named Grimm won an election against a heavily funded Democrat despite being under a 20-count federal corruption indictment. Grimm had threatened on camera to throw a TV reporter “off a f**king balcony” and “break [him] in half … like a boy.” He still beat the Democrat by 13 points.

The standard-bearer for unelectable candidates who were elected anyway will likely always be Donald Trump. Trump was caught admitting to sexual assault on tape and openly insulted almost every conceivable demographic, from Mexicans to menstruating women to POWs to the disabled; he even pulled out a half-baked open-mic-night version of a Chinese accent. And still won. Gianforte, Trump and Grimm are not exceptions. They’re the rule in modern America, which in recent years has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to vote for just about anybody not currently under indictment for serial murder, so long as that person is not a Democrat.

The list of winners includes Tennessee congressman Scott Desjarlais, a would-be “family values” advocate. Desjarlais, a self-styled pious abortion opponent, was busted sleeping with his patients and even urging a mistress to get an abortion. He still won his last race in Bible country by 30 points.

One wonders if even the serial murderer bit would be enough to disqualify a Republican these days—especially if he or she went around killing liberals or minorities. Furthermore, while Matt Taibbi acknowledges all of the above justifications were, in part, factors in why Greg Gianforte triumphed and Rob Quist was left to sing a sad country song (aren’t they all sad, come to think of it?), as he argues, this rationalization/moral victory business is also indicative of a self-destructive mentality within the Democratic Party. Taibbi explains further:

A lot of these things are true. America is obviously a deeply racist and paranoid country. Gerrymandering is a serious problem. Unscrupulous, truth-averse right-wing media has indeed spent decades bending the brains of huge pluralities of voters, particularly the elderly. And Republicans have often, but not always, had fundraising advantages in key races. But the explanations themselves speak to a larger problem. The unspoken subtext of a lot of the Democrats’ excuse-making is their growing belief that the situation is hopeless – and not just because of fixable institutional factors like gerrymandering, but because we simply have a bad/irredeemable electorate that can never be reached.

This is why the “basket of deplorables” comment last summer was so devastating. That the line would become a sarcastic rallying cry for Trumpites was inevitable. (Of course it birthed a political merchandising supernova.) To many Democrats, the reaction proved the truth of Clinton’s statement. As in: we’re not going to get the overwhelming majority of these yeehaw-ing “deplorable” votes anyway, so why not call them by their names? But the “deplorables” comment didn’t just further alienate already lost Republican votes. It spoke to an internal sickness within the Democratic Party, which had surrendered to a negativistic vision of a hopelessly divided country.

This sort of us-versus-them rhetoric has long since been established by and understood of the Republican Party. Blame the welfare seekers taking advantage of the system. Blame the erosion of American values. Blame illegal immigration. Blame terrorism. I don’t wish to give Donald Trump too much credit in this regard—in fact, I wish to give him little to none for exploiting these factors—but he did commit to the GOP playbook and ride out the electoral storm unapologetically all the way to the White House. For the Democratic Party, however, a party that touts its inclusiveness, subscribing to the belief that certain segments of the electorate are, at best, not worth the effort, and at worst, irredeemable, seems, if not a betrayal of its core values, then a poor way to distinguish itself from the kind of Republican Party which makes closing America’s open door to refugees of war-torn nations and closing bathroom doors to the transgender community some of its top priorities. As Matt Taibbi offers, “Just because the Republicans win using deeply cynical and divisive strategies doesn’t mean it’s the right or smart thing to do.” In saying as much, he points to how Barack Obama campaigned in red states, even when facing racist rhetoric or when assured of losing in the general election, marking a stark contrast between his approach and that of Hillary Clinton, content to play it safe and keep pandering to the Democratic base.

At the core of the Democrats’ woes, though, and where I feel Taibbi’s analysis hits the nail on its head, is in their strategic and thematic miscues. As the author keenly stresses, a platform based almost exclusively on Trump/Republican negatives is neither a message nor a plan, explaining why the Democrats “have managed the near impossible: losing ground overall during the singular catastrophe of the Trump presidency.” Furthermore, the party appears to lack the commitment to help mobilize people to the polls. Taibbi closes his piece with these thoughts:

The party doesn’t see that the largest group of potential swing voters out there doesn’t need to be talked out of voting Republican. It needs to be talked out of not voting at all. The recent polls bear this out, showing that the people who have been turned off to the Democrats in recent months now say that in a do-over, they would vote for third parties or not at all. People need a reason to be excited by politics, and not just disgusted with the other side. Until the Democrats figure that out, these improbable losses will keep piling up.

This, if you ask me, was one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign: rather than focusing on why we shouldn’t be voting for Donald Trump—and if you didn’t see why by November, you probably never were going to see it, let’s be clear—a more compelling case should have been made for why she (Hillary) merited your vote. That is, if you weren’t sold by the “first woman President” angle, and if you were tired of voting for the so-called lesser of two evils (by now, we all should be), there should have been a different or modified narrative for her sake. The polling Taibbi cites of voters increasingly disenfranchised with the Democrats and yet more willing to choose a third-party candidate or none at all should scare the living daylights out of party leadership, as should the notion that younger and more liberal Dems are openly discussing the formation of a new party such as the People’s Party to more authentically represent the country’s needs. Granted, we might not expect the results of a splintering of the Democratic Party to bear fruit in the short term, if it even gets off the ground and is sustainable, but at what percentage of a “lost” vote will the Democratic brass truly begin to take notice and action? 10%? 15%? Or will they remain aloof and/or continue to deflect from undertaking genuine reform?

Should the Democrats be disheartened at not winning the special election in Montana? Given the state’s political leanings, no, not really. That said, a loss is still a loss, and if Democrats are looking for some sense of momentum heading into 2018 or 2020, they’ve still got a wait on their hands for that potential pivotal moment. Moreover, if they’re waiting on Donald Trump and other loose cannons to self-destruct, they’ve got a yet longer wait. Simply put, playing the game of not—not losing, being not-Trump or not-Republicans—is not working. Even if a sense of false hope is what Trump and Co. are giving their supporters, at least they are giving them something on which they can hang their proverbial hats. “Make America Great Again.” It may not mean much to those of us who condescend against its very logic, but to those who believe in it as a promise, it means a great deal. As for the Democrats, who is their inspirational leader? What is their rallying cry? Though mid-terms and the next presidential election may seem remote to many of us, if the Dems don’t figure out answers to these questions or think about how to better reach out to underserved portions of the electorate, they and members of the Resistance will still have their work cut out for them in three-and-a-half years’ time.

Be Careful What You Wish For: President as CEO Edition

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Just look at those tiny hands go. (Photo Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

How many times have you heard the phrase “live each day like it’s your last?” It’s good advice, in theory. Certainly, you should be active in shaping your destiny and not waiting for things to happen to your benefit. Then again, taken to absurd extremes, this could be a dangerous mantra by which to live. At no point is it recommended that your drain your savings, spend it on alcohol, drugs, and other diversions, and throw the party to end all parties. Swimming pools full of liquor à la Kendrick Lamar. Sex with many anonymous partners. Fun, perhaps, yes, but not terribly prudent. If it seems like I’m a bit of a wet blanket in this regard, it’s only because, by all accounts, I am.

President Donald J. Trump, for his part, seems to subscribe to this way of thinking, or at least approaches running the country in this way. Risk the position of the Republican Party by insisting on a replacement to ObamaCare, an unpopular travel ban, a militaristic immigration policy and overall approach to criminal justice, and an expensive wall at the Mexican border, among other things? No big deal—Trump hasn’t been a very faithful member of the GOP, and basically ran his campaign without the full backing of the party’s leaders (in fact, that probably only helped him). Fire off crazy, unfounded remarks regularly on Twitter? Fine—the news media is happy with all the clicks and TV ratings it receives every time he makes his feelings known. Appeal to corporations and workers alike with a pro-business, anti-environment agenda? That’s OK—he’ll probably be dead by the time the worst effects of deleterious climate change hit (though at the rate he’s going, who knows).

More recently, however, it is the firing of FBI director James Comey that has people up in arms, particularly incensed about the decision of a man known for acting suddenly and capriciously. Now, was Mr. Comey a saint? Far from it, as evidenced by his rather brazen actions which directly influenced voters’ perceptions of the 2016 presidential race—which he testified as being absolutely sick about, because he had no intention of doing anything to sway the outcome. Sure, Jim, you’re really helping your credibility there. In fact, after Comey effectively threw hurdles in Hillary Clinton’s lane in the race for the presidency, many were calling for his head. You know, figuratively speaking. At least I think it was figuratively speaking. This past election sure dredged up some powerful feelings—and still continues to, if I might add.

Based on his guilt, then, James Comey doesn’t inspire a great deal of sympathy merely for losing his job. Where the outrage lies, meanwhile, is what the presumed motivations are for Trump deciding to fire Comey at this point in time. The White House has indicated it was because of Comey’s apparent bias and his lack of fairness in dealing with Hillary Clinton, among other things, but come on—nobody believes that. After all, why wait until May 2017 to make the determination to ax Comey if that were the case? Such reasoning is not only illogical, but it’s pretty damn insulting to our intelligence as readers, Tweeters, and viewers of the news.

No, the consensus opinion is that James Comey was fired because he was getting too close for comfort in his investigation of Donald Trump himself and other close associates. It is all but known that Trump and prominent members of his administration/campaign have direct financial ties to Russian oligarchs or had contact with Russian ambassadors prior to the election, and hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s E-mails raise serious concerns about whether or not Trump and his team were involved in an apparent plot to screw with American democratic proceedings and sway the election in his favor. In addition, viewed in the context of other firings within the Justice Department, namely those of Sally Yates and Preet Bharara, Comey’s removal is suspicious in that those individuals who have been involved with investigating Trump’s affairs have all been sent packing by the President. Sure, there’s no definitive proof these firings were all politically motivated—well, not yet, at least—but this trend raises one’s eyebrows. Heck, John McCain broke ranks with his fellow Republicans to express his disappointment in Comey proving to be a casualty of the Trump White House. When members of the GOP are publicly casting doubts about Trump’s motives, you know it’s a big deal.

Predictably, a number of his Cabinet members came to Pres. Trump’s defense, as I’m sure his fans on blogs, on Breitbart, and on talk radio did as well. The rationalization that stuck with me the most, though, was that of Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations and, more recently, Donald Trump apologist. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on his show This Week, Haley said that “[Trump] is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire anyone he wants.” This is a striking assertion to me, not merely because Trump, as President of the United States, can’t just fire anyone he wants. A significant portion of Trump’s lasting appeal is his identity as a political outsider and a successful businessman (only one of the two is accurate), and in this regard, his presidency is almost an experiment of sorts in applying a business leadership model to a publicly-elected office. In talking with my close circle of friends about Donald Trump (spoiler alert: we’re generally not fond of him), we discussed how Americans who voted for the orange one may have been swayed by vague notions of wanting to see how the country could or would be run if it were handled like a corporation or other business. Given this frame of mind, Trump’s perceived success or failure and the future political prospects of other prominent Republicans could therefore be seen as a referendum on such an industry-focused approach.

Now well past the 100-day mark of Trump’s tenure, it’s worth considering whether or not more and more Americans who voted him into office might be suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse, not to mention contemplating just how well the Trump-as-CEO-President analogy fits. As John Cassidy, writing for The New Yorker, insists, if Donald Trump were a CEO, he’d probably be fired. To this end, and in his assessment of Trump’s tenure heretofore, Cassidy is pretty much unequivocal:

Donald Trump has built his political career on his reputation as a successful businessman, so it seems fair to assess his recent performance as President as if he were a C.E.O. running U.S.A., Inc. The report card isn’t pretty. Indeed, if Trump were the chief executive of a public company, the firm’s non-executive directors probably would have been huddled in a crisis meeting on Tuesday morning, deciding whether to issue him a pink slip.

In such a corporate scenario, the board members would likely decide they had no choice but to oust Trump to protect the reputation of the company and prevent further damage. During the past week, he has twice messed up monumentally, doing grave harm to his own credibility and undermining the country’s reputation around the world. And these were just his latest mistakes. During his four months in the corner office, Trump has repeatedly shown that he is patently unsuited for the position he holds, and he has also demonstrated a chronic inability to change the way he operates.

I would think more moderate Trump supporters and voters would be apt to concede that “the Donald” lacks the qualifications you might desire of a Commander-in-Chief, much in the way reluctant Hillary Clinton voters would likely concede their choice was—how can I put this delicately?—somewhat out of touch with working-class Americans. Those same people would also probably agree that flexibility and Donald Trump do not necessarily come part and parcel, though they might disagree to the extent this is a virtue or vice. For all those individuals who profess to want a negotiator who will work with members of both major political parties and knows how to compromise, there seems to be, if not an equivalent number of people, then a sufficiently vocal minority which believes the opposite: that refusal to compromise is an element of strong leadership, and that sticking to one’s proverbial guns is to be lauded, not decried.

In other words, John Cassidy would be remiss if he did not cite specific examples of how Donald Trump as POTUS and chief executive has failed. Thankfully, at least for his sake, he does not disappoint. Though I’m sure you can imagine which recent events top his list, here are the two big blockbusters that he cites to prove his point:

1. The firing of James Comey

We’ve addressed this in part, but Cassidy points out the incongruity in the public statements about why Comey was fired is a public relations disaster, and, though it almost certainly means nothing to Trump, he really hung Vice President Mike Pence out to dry by contradicting his account of why a vacancy at the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation now exists. Trump’s ensuing Tweets that appear to be warning James Comey that he had better hope there were no tapes of their conversations only further the notion that he (Trump) is the kind of unstable person who you wouldn’t want caring for your pet goldfish, let alone a company or the United States of freaking America. I mean, to put it another way, um, blackmail tends to be frowned upon in our society.

2. The disclosure of classified information to Russian officials

At a bare minimum, this is a case of bad optics, but in a different country or perhaps even in a different era, Donald Trump would stand to be harangued or tarred-and-feathered—or worse—for what some might argue is tantamount to treason. We all know of Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and other world leaders suspected of crimes against humanity. But seriously, bruh, this is Russia we’re talking about here. You know, the country responsible for hacking our election? As Cassidy puts it, running with the metaphor of America as a corporate entity (realistically speaking, it’s not much of a stretch), “Just how much damage Trump’s indiscretions have inflicted on the company isn’t yet known. But it’s clear that he was guilty of a serious breach of trust, and another stunning error of judgment.”

For most of Trump’s tenure as “CEO,” other executives within the company (high-ranking Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) and its most bullish shareholders (Trump supporters) have been willing to roll with the punches, but as of late, #45’s antics have made even them skittish. Thinking in terms of the big picture, there is a clear element of risk here, and in terms of economic hazards, not just political danger. With the unpredictability of Donald Trump’s actions and the civil unrest that has accompanied his rise to power, both domestically-based and foreign-owned companies are less liable to seek to invest in our nation. The same goes for those individuals who would study or travel or work here. If not worried about their physical safety, the fear may well be for what is called, in business parlance, the going concern of the company, or its ability to remain in business for the foreseeable future. In the case of the United States of America, not only are concerns about our debt and our infrastructure more than justified, but the prospects of a climate catastrophe or world war don’t seem all that remote either. The ticking of the Doomsday Clock grows ever louder.


Nikki Haley
Yes, Nikki Haley, you too might suffer for your association with Donald Trump. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s behavior of late has intensified talks of impeachment. In terms of potential impeachable offenses, the reported request made by Trump of James Comey to effectively look the other way on Michael Flynn looms especially large, as it points to a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice. Then again, for months, critics have been circling, highlighting, and putting a bright neon sticky note on Trump’s and his family’s refusal to divest or put Trump Organization assets in a blind trust, saying this alone is sufficient grounds for removal based on violation of the now-famous Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Let it be stressed, though, that these calls for the deposition of Pres. Trump come with their own caveat. For one, cries for impeachment proceedings from the general public will likely need to be amplified by Congress, and the Republicans in the House and Senate don’t seem to give a serious enough shit to act to curb Trump’s wanton disregard for ethics, human decency, and said Constitution. Besides this, getting rid of Trump doesn’t mean that the leadership gets profoundly better based on who’s next in the line of succession. After Donald Trump—just to name a few—it’s Mike Pence (Vice President), followed by Paul Ryan (Speaker of the House), Orrin Hatch (President pro tem of the Senate), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), and Steven Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury). What a bunch of winners, eh? Hard to know which is slimier or more slippery than the next, and, yes, better than Trump, but as has been well established, that’s a low bar to clear.

President Trump’s reckless behavior, though, while it should be rightly admonished and while it forms the basis of much of John Cassidy’s analysis, doesn’t speak to the full scope of his ineffectiveness as CEO of the company-country. John Micklethwait, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, views things somewhat more holistically in terms of how well managed the White House is. As with Cassidy’s findings, meanwhile, the results are similarly unenthusiastic. Micklethwait’s piece is entitled “Would You Let Trump Run Your Company?” and hits on a number of the same themes that thus have been presented. The same antics that Cassidy enumerates are referenced herein, but the author quickly pivots to assessing the Trump presidency purely on its merits as a cohesive unit and the boss’s merits as a facilitator:

Behind this list of individual transgressions sit four larger failings: This CEO-in-chief has failed to get things done; he has failed to build a strong team, especially in domestic policy; he hasn’t dealt with conflicts of interest; and his communications is in shambles.

On the first count, you can basically spin the domestic policy wheel of fortune and pick an area where Trump and Co. have been unable to get substantive policy authored and enacted. The American Health Care Act, the GOP’s putative replacement for the Affordable Care Act, still has yet to be passed by both halves of Congress, and faces stern opposition not only from minority-party Democrats, but concerned constituents regardless of political affiliation. His proposed tax reform has yet to be even fully visualized. Ditto for his infrastructure plan, and to boot, several of his executive orders have (thankfully) been challenged in and stayed by the nation’s judiciary. So there’s that.

On the second count, Donald Trump is much further behind in filling needed posts than Barack Obama was at this point in his presidency. Even putting the drama with the quick-to-resign Michael Flynn aside, John Micklethwait points to a “whiff of cronyism” in the Trump administration ranks, capped off by positions of influence for Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner despite their apparent lack of qualifications for their associated stature. As Micklethwait puts it: “There appears to be little structure in the White House. It’s more like a court than a company, with the king retiring to bed with a cheeseburger and spontaneously tweeting orders.”

On the third count, there’s Trump’s conflicts of interests, to which I’ve already alluded. Micklethwait highlights the contrast between how most—for lack of a better term—normal executives manage their personal investments next to those of their business, and how Trump, ever cavalier, has approached his affairs. In the author’s words once more:

In most businesses, this is something most incoming bosses deal with quickly and automatically. There’s an ethics policy, and you follow it. That policy usually has two levels: first, obeying the law; second, setting standards and following processes that avoid even the impression of any conflict. This second prohibitive level is crucial.

Again, and to make a long story short, the Trump family has failed this test, if you can even say that, because calling them failures implies they have at least nominally tried to comply with ethical and legal guidelines. They haven’t.

On the fourth and final count, there’s the communications aspect. Donald Trump is characteristically unpredictable, a quality he likely sees as a virtue because it keeps his would-be competitors guessing. Unfortunately, in terms of working with his so-called team, when figures like Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson aren’t contradicting one another, Trump himself is Tweeting something that flies in the face of what Mike Pence or Sean Spicer or some other mouthpiece for the President says. Or he’s just flat-out lying, and unlike other CEOs who ultimately cop to their falsehoods and express some degree of contrition, Trump only doubles down on his assertions, and tries to bully or goad dissenters into silence. He’s not just merely falling short on this dimension—he’s helping create a dangerous world where facts are ignored or marginalized in favor of who has the loudest or sexiest argument.

In all respects, therefore, Pres. Trump is not proving an effective leader, and America is not “winning” nearly as much as he boasted we would because of it. In fact, we may be starting to lose outright. Stocks rebounded this past Thursday across major indexes, buoyed by strong economic data, but they had to rebound because uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump and whispers of impeachment sent the Dow Jones, for one, tumbling by more than 350 points. On one hand, two or three or four days does not a definitive economic trend make. Still, with a man in the White House whose penchant is unpredictability, that we might continue to see these individual “shocks” is reasonable, if not probable. When the fate of the markets is largely in the hands of reactionary investors, the question becomes how bumpy is too bumpy a ride before these shareholders want to get off.

In closing his op-ed, John Micklethwait offers these sentiments, essentially telling us it’s up to Republican Party leaders to decide whether or not it’s time to come get their boy Trump. You know, assuming he doesn’t suddenly become more presidential—and one is advised not to hold his or her breath to that end:

There is a semi-charitable explanation for much of this chaos. Trump does not have any experience as a CEO—at least in the sense that most of corporate America would recognize. One telling irony: Many of the banking executives now trying to curry favor with him would never have lent him money in the past. His skills were in dealmaking, rather than running a large organization. The core Trump company had barely 100 people. It’s possible that if he takes on some of the basic management lessons to do with structure, process, and delegation, then he may be able to run America. The question now is whether he has already made enough mistakes for the board to get rid of him. The closest thing America has to a board is the group of Republican senators who must decide what to investigate. Trump will hate the analogy, but at this moment, their leader, Senator McConnell, is his chairman—and the CEO has a lot of explaining to do.

In the lead-in to this post, I referred to Donald Trump leading the country like there’s no tomorrow. The GOP, too, has been playing a short-term game, doing what they can to approve the legislation and nominees they wish to have confirmed, even going as far as to use the “nuclear option”—changing Senate rules to overcome the power of filibuster. Otherwise, they have been performing a balancing act with their policy stances, eager not to alienate Trump supporters in possible bids for re-election. As the rocky road of Donald J. Trump as CEO of the US of A continues, however, how long will it be before they start to panic in their own right? For those who wanted a pro-business outsider from the private sector in the Oval Office, or simply someone who would advance a conservative Republican agenda, be careful what you wish for. You may not get the returns you’ve been seeking, and even worse, you may find your support for the CEO-President only serves to work against you after all.

The Trump Family Is Costing Us a Shit-Ton of Money

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Reportedly, President Trump’s weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago estate cost some $3 million a pop. Good news, though: we’re on the hook for the cost, and the Trump family benefits financially from use of the facilities. Wait, that’s terrible news. (Photo Credit: Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

You may like or dislike Donald Trump. You may be disturbed to a greater or lesser extent about his womanizing and his general treatment of women. You may choose to believe or not believe in his purported business acumen and entrepreneurial know-how. You may agree or disagree with his views on Muslims and Mexican groups. You may be concerned or unconcerned with the roles of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner in the White House. You may give a shit or not give a shit about Trump’s tax returns. You may approve or disapprove of his Twitter and Fox News obsessions. You may or may not ascribe value to his statements on his supposed Russian business ties or his wiretapping claims. You may even have or not have a fascination with the length of the man’s neckties. Simply put, you may possess a range of opinions when it comes to President Trump, his policies, and the job he is doing as putative leader of the free world. If there’s one thing, however, that should aggravate members of the general public regardless of political affiliation, one thing that should frustrate Americans across the board as taxpayers and residents of the United States of America, it’s that the Trump family is costing us a shit-ton of money—with no apparent regard for that notion. I mean, I’m pissed. Aren’t you?

How bad could it be, you ask? A certain amount of expenditure is to be expected in having to safeguard the President, the First Lady, and their family, right? Right, but when elements of the cost are not only inflated by their caprice, but benefit the same people helping to drive up the cost, it’s an issue. Tierney McAfee, staff editor at People Magazine, outlines the depth of the problem in a March article. First, there is the matter of safeguarding Melania Trump in Trump Tower. Citing a February letter from NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to New York City Congress members, it costs over $100,000 a day. A day. This is in addition to expenses incurred in the interim between Election Day and Inauguration Day, which totaled upwards of $25 million, a figure underscored in O’Neill’s letter amid a request for federal funding. Moreover, the Secret Service is already requesting $60 million in funding for next year, over $25 million of which would be dedicated for the explicit purpose of protecting the Trump family and Trump Tower. That’s a lot of money to devote to watching over the First Lady and 11-year-old Barron Trump while he goes to school—and there’s no guarantee they will relocate after the school year is done.

Then there’s the matter of Donald Trump’s trips to his estate, Mar-a-Lago, in Florida. It’s one thing that Melania and Barron stay in a New York penthouse; after all, while it would be appreciated if Mom and Son would call the District of Columbia home in light of the daily price tag, there’s nothing to say that FLOTUS has to have anything to do with the comings and goings of POTUS. President Trump, meanwhile, it might be argued, should be spending more time in the White House, and less time entertaining world leaders at one of his resorts and playing golf. At the time of the publication of McAfee’s piece, Trump had been to Mar-a-Lago five times, with the first three trips alone costing taxpayers $10 million dollars. The weekend of March 25 – 26, the last weekend before the publication date, marked the eighth weekend in a row of Trump’s tenure that he went to a Trump-owned property; even when he stayed in the D.C.-Virginia area, Pres. Trump visited Trump International Hotel and his golf course in VA. And speaking of golf or at least going to courses for meetings, Trump had made 13 such trips since he took office as of when Tierney McAfee finished her article. I’m not sure which of these types of visits is better or worse. On one hand, a round of golf means he’s not really working. On the other hand, we know what he’s doing when he plays a round of golf. That is, he’s probably not meeting Russian diplomats or actively plotting ways to screw over the 99% when he does it. Or maybe he is. By now, I’m all but conditioned to thinking the worst when it comes to Donald Trump.

And yet, even herein, there are likely to be actual matters of state discussed. When sons Eric and Donald Jr. go on business trips for the primary purpose of negotiating deals for the Trump Organization, that has cost us money as well, and as a result, strikes one as wholly egregious. In January, Eric Trump, his entourage, Secret Service members, and embassy staff stayed two nights in Uruguay for a Trump Organization promotional trip. The result? Nearly $100,000 in taxpayer bills. Amy Brittain and Drew Harwell, reporting for The Washington Post, illuminated the crux of the matter in their article on the trip. And I quote:

The Uruguayan trip shows how the government is unavoidably entangled with the Trump company as a result of the president’s refusal to divest his ownership stake. In this case, government agencies are forced to pay to support business operations that ultimately help to enrich the president himself. Though the Trumps have pledged a division of business and government, they will nevertheless depend on the publicly funded protection granted to the first family as they travel the globe promoting their brand.

“Government agencies are forced to pay to support business operations that ultimately help to enrich the president himself.” In other words, we, the taxpayers, are helping the Trump family’s bottom line. It’s even better than a business loan for “the Donald”—of which he has had several in his career as a real estate magnate and which helped bring Trump’s companies to file for bankruptcy four times, mind you. This way, the rest of are picking up the tab on security, any debt incurred now shared debt—like, ahem, we really need any more.

In addition, the implications of this arrangement, particularly the refusal of Donald Trump to divest or put his assets in a blind trust, should be clear to those of us concerned with what informs the President’s agenda and foreign policy. If he would enrich himself with trips to his D.C. hotel and his Mar-a-Lago estate and his Trump Tower Punta del Este resort in Uruguay, why wouldn’t he direct other elements of his policies to that function? The so-called “Muslim ban,” in its various iterations, is notable not only for being a horribly discriminatory piece of garbage, but singles out nations that have not been responsible for any attacks on American soil for at least the past 30 or 40 years. Originally, the ban prevented nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen from traveling to the United States. Muslim Ban 2.0—which, like its predecessor, is still being litigated in court as to its constitutionality—has since removed Iraq from the equation. Still, why not, say, Saudi Arabia, a country from which a majority of the 9/11 hijackers hailed? Oh, right: Trump has business interests there, as well as in Egypt, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries, as noted by Chris Sommerfeldt, writing for the New York Daily News, have “deep-seated ties” to terrorism. Ah, suddenly, the President’s directives seem decidedly less “arbitrary,” and more specifically designed with his personal business interests in mind. But, right—it’s totally because he wants to keep America safe. Right.


If you voted for Donald Trump, well, you probably aren’t reading this, but I’ll direct this line of discourse at you nonetheless. If you voted for Trump, you have two reasons to be upset with your chosen candidate before we even get to matters of exorbitant Secret Service detail price tags. The first is that he’s—and I mean this with all due respect—a dirty, dirty liar. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump painted the picture of himself as the hard-working would-be President. He would have so much to do, he wouldn’t dream of playing so much golf. America First and what-not. Now that he’s done campaigning—well, done campaigning for the 2016 election, that is; he’s already got his sights set on 2020, I’m sure—he’s free to turn around and do the exact opposite. I get it—politicians lie. But wait—didn’t Trump say he’s not a politician? So, which one is it? Do we disregard President Trump’s statements as the boasts of a showman and prospective political leader? Or do we not give him the benefit of the doubt that professional liars in the political sphere get and hold him to a greater standard of accountability congruent with his identity as a competent businessman? You know, like we do with all business executives. Er, OK—bad example. Still, he shouldn’t be able to have it both ways.

The other reason you may be duly frustrated with Donald Trump as a supporter is that he’s—and again, I mean this with all due respect—a stinking hypocrite. While he was President, Trump and various Republicans lambasted Barack Obama for the frequency of his vacations, for their length, and for his numerous golf outings, as they saw it. Now that the golf shoe is on the other foot? As we’ve already determined, Pres. Trump has spent a lot of time between his resorts and golfing. In fact, he has spent so much time during weekends at Mar-a-Lago and provided so few details about who stays and when that Democratic lawmakers have requested that the Government Accountability Office look into just how our money is spent—and the GAO has evidently acquiesced.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Tom Udall, alongside Rep. Elijah Cummings, made the request, wanting to know, among other things: 1) Does the $200,000 price tag for a membership at the club include access to the President? 2) For security purposes, why aren’t visitor logs being kept at Trump resorts? 3) How are communications and sensitive information being safeguarded at Mar-a-Lago? 4) Um, how much is it costing us? As the linked NPR article notes, that last question, in particular, has been asked of the GAO before about President Obama by Republicans. It’s only fair, right? While we mull over whether or not Republican lawmakers are guilty of their own brand of hypocrisy, if the current pace of expenditure is any indication, #45 is set to blow his predecessor out of the water. Barack Obama’s cost of travel over his eight-year tenure has been estimated at $85 million to $96 million. In just his visits to Mar-a-Lago alone, Trump has racked up $15 million in taxpayer bills—and it’s only been three months. There are those of us who shudder at the prospect of eight years of Donald Trump in the White House, but it’s our wallets which may be feeling the greatest weight of all if that comes to fruition.

At the bare minimum, therefore, we should all be—shall we say—disappointed in our President for reneging on campaign promises and failing to practice what he preaches. Now, let’s return to the notion of the legitimacy of what he’s doing from a constitutional standpoint. Don’t worry—I don’t truly understand a lot of it either, so we’re going through this analysis together. A key issue which a number of legal scholars and amateur constitutional analysts have raised is whether or not Trump, by virtue of hosting foreign heads of state at his resorts and by refusing to divest or put his assets in a blind trust, is in violation of the Emoluments Clause. Also known as the Title of Nobility Clause, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution reads as such:

No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

In terns of the spirit of the passage, the Emoluments Clause is designed to prevent POTUS from being 1) an all-powerful king or tyrant, and 2) from accepting bribes or being corrupted by foreign influences and interests. On the first count, Donald Trump is no king—even if he may think otherwise. The courts’ resistance to the Muslim ban, for instance, have kept him, in part, in check. On the second count, however, whether we’re talking his believed financial relationship with Russia or other dealings that even indirectly benefit the Trump Organization (Google “Trump China property rights” and witness the ensuing questions about ethics), there definitely would seem to be something to complaints against President Agent Orange.

Whether or not this is an open-and-shut case is another story. In fact, in all likelihood, in terms of actual and potential litigation, the answer is “far from it.” Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute Center for Constitutional Ethics, addresses this point in relation to a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Concerning the lawsuit, according to Olson, its chance of success isn’t all that favorable, purely on the basis that the organization itself is not an aggrieved party, and thus not entitled to any remedy under the law. Concerning specific applicability of the Emoluments Clause, meanwhile, there is simply not a whole lot of legal precedent by which relevant concepts and terms have been defined by the courts. Olson explains:

In its relevant bits, the Emoluments Clause holds that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the US], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present [or] Emolument [from any] foreign State.” Few cases have reached the courts clarifying the scope of these terms, and although some light is shed by advisory opinions written by past White House lawyers, much remains uncertain. Does only a stipend or salary, or a payment in compensation for the official’s direct time or attention, count as an emolument? Or does the term extend even to, say, an arms’-length hotel room rental at fair price? What if the payment is going not to an officeholder personally, but to a business he owns in part, or to a relative? And who exactly counts as a foreign state actor?

As with trying to define the “natural-born citizen” clause for purposes of determining eligibility for the office of President—recall doubts raised by Trump himself about Ted Cruz’s candidacy, being born in Canada—the dearth of established tests in courts with regard to the Emoluments Clause makes any legal “knockout blows” against Donald Trump, as Walter Olson terms them, improbable. What’s more, even if Pres. Trump is somehow found to be in violation of the Clause, as Olson also indicates, the courts “aren’t obliged to provide a broad remedy,” as the people behind the CREW lawsuit would have it, and could very well require another branch of government or other voters to decide such matters.

Additionally, as regards whether or not violation constitutes an impeachable offense, not only do the courts tend to defer to Congress on this front, but the Emoluments Clause explicitly states that payments or other contributions of material value from foreign sources must occur without its (Congress’s) consent. By and large, the Republican-majority U.S. Congress has given Trump’s agenda the green light, even changing Senate rules to usher in Neil Gorsuch as Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court, so if we are holding our collective breath for impeachment proceedings to begin, we had best have someone on hand to revive us. Besides, enthusiasm for such a move is admittedly dulled with someone like Mike Pence, a man who has apparently made stripping women of their reproductive rights his mission, waiting in the wings.

So, forget about the Emoluments Clause—or at least keep it in the back of your mind for the time being. You may even want to drop the whole caring about whether or not Donald Trump is a dirty, dirty liar and a stinking hypocrite—because he sure doesn’t care, and the same goes for other key figures in the White House. But the ethical concerns surrounding Trump’s travel expenses? They matter, if for no other reason than they affect our bottom line and those of the Trump family at the same time. Jeremy Venook, editorial fellow at The Atlantic, explains why apparent conflicts of interest make it so that we can’t begin to parse what is done for possibly legitimate reasons—and realistically, these seem few to none when considering why Mr. Trump would, for instance, opt for Mar-a-Lago over Camp David, other than sheer comfort—and what is done for mere self-aggrandizing. The key thoughts, as I find them, from Venook’s piece:

The focus on hypocrisy is understandable; historically, calling out politicians on lies and inconsistencies has been seen as a potent political tool, whether because the politicians themselves change their behavior or because voters turn against leaders they consider dishonest. But this may no longer be the case: The new administration seems singularly unresponsive to shame over their own lies and hypocrisy, and, with inflexible partisanship an increasingly powerful force in American politics, calling them out on their dissembling may no longer convince either the administration or its base to change their behavior. Besides, when it comes to vacations, doing so is arguably hypocritical in and of itself, a partisan ouroboros in which each changeover of the executive branch reawakens one half of the country to righteous indignation over the president’s personal expenses (which, it should be noted, comprise only a fraction of a percent of the executive branch’s budget).

What is new, though, is the Trump family’s continued commingling of their business with the presidency, and their continued refusal to even entertain the idea of divestment: President Trump did not file promised paperwork to resign from his titular organization until after ProPublica reported that he had not done so; Ivanka apparently has still not resigned from her own companies; the trust set up to prevent the president from overseeing his finances is not only not “blind” but is also revocable, meaning he can alter the arrangement whenever he wants. In light of this malfeasance, a decades-old criticism has taken on additional meaning. Partisan ire over presidential leisure time has been a mainstay of political discourse since at least the 1950s, when President Eisenhower was roundly castigated for spending too much time on the golf course. But only the Trump family has provided a genuine reason for the American public to be concerned that their vacations represent a true willingness to prioritize their own fortunes over that of the country.

As Venook and others see it, it’s not even the dollar amount or that it’s a Republican as opposed to a Democrat who is prone to excess in this instance that’s the bugaboo. It’s that the Trumps are not only cavalier with regard to their ethics as political figures, but that they are so unwilling to be transparent and straightforward in their dealings, such that those of us outside the vanguard have almost no choice but to suspect they are acting in a way that serves their interests over ours. After all, if they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they be more forthcoming about the who, what, and why of the various trips outside the purview of Washington, D.C.? You can call this liberal spin if you so choose, but I think this is more logical than anything. The obscurity, the declining of requests for information, the confrontational relationship with the press—if this were Barack Obama, you’d be wagging at a finger at him and his 3-wood up and down the blogosphere. And yes, there’s a deeper subtext there, but we would need at least another 3,000 words to explore that theme.

In short, yes, it matters that Donald Trump has spent half his weekends at Mar-a-Lago. On some level, it matters that he lied about the devotion he would show to the presidency and that he has been even worse than Obama in terms of those same qualities for which he roasted his predecessor. Even if the power of the courts is sparing to censure Trump on his possible violations of the Emoluments Clause, and Congress won’t entertain a reprimand, this, too, matters, if for no other reason than the White House has to waste time, money, and energy defending the President from the inevitable legal challenges. But above all else, it matters that untold sums are being spent to safeguard Donald, Melania, and the other Trumps, that we are on the hook for these sums, and that the First Family is benefitting financially from this arrangement. The Trump family is costing us a shit-ton of money, and if you’re still not pissed about this idea, then I feel we can’t even begin to have a real conversation about what this presidency means for everyday Americans.