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Podcast | Digging Deeper - Trump card: A year in the life of US President Donald Trump

2018 has been one steaming cup of covfefe for Donald J Trump. And any annual review we do here cannot be complete without him. Or his tweets. So, on this edition of Digging Deeper, we will try to cover the salient features of the Trump presidency this year.

December 19, 2018 / 08:11 AM IST

Yesterday, on our story on Facebook, we spoke about how the tech behemoth used ‘delay, deny, and deflect’ tactics to avert controversy. That trifecta of D’s could also define another D of our times. D for Donald.

2018 has been one steaming cup of covfefe for Donald J Trump. And any annual review we do here cannot be complete without him. Or his tweets. So, on this edition of Digging Deeper, we will try to cover the salient features of the Trump presidency in 2018.

From his tweets, to the hungry federal investigators circling him, to the books written about him and some notably messy diplomatic decisions, we will cover it all. But let us first begin with the social media presence of the President who despite his wife's appeals to the American public for better cyber etiquette, is possibly the world's most powerful virtual bully. Since he took office, and as of the December 7 this year, he has insulted 550 people, places, and things, on Twitter. (Bless The New York Times for maintaining a list.)

Over the past couple of weeks, when the Mueller investigation has circled in on him closer and closer, with the sentencing of his one-time fixer Michael Cohen to three years in prison, that Facebookesque tactic of deny-and-deflect has been even more apparent in his Twitter freakouts. Latest in his attacks - Saturday Night Live. He has always railed against Alec Baldwin’s impression of him, but this time he wants sketches from the NBC late night comedy to be tested in court. In the word salad that becomes him, he went, “Only defame & belittle! Collusion?”


More seriously, and away from a sketch comedy that, for the record, has made fun of every President since 1975, what Twitter has given Trump is a weapon the likes of which even Presidential Crook Nixon did not have. It is a weapon he uses unrepentantly, unrelentingly to unleash blunt trauma - whether to demonise asylum seekers or as a matter of policy directing the US government to separate asylum-seeking families crossing the border. Whether it is to declare that transgender people were exempt from serving in the military or to repost hate speech from the very darkest corners of right-wing conspiracy media, his has been a presidency of not law and order - as he had promised - but a presidency spent in 280 characters.

It is therefore only fair that we begin our examination of The Donald with an exploration of his most primary entity - Twitter tyrant.

Trump: The compulsive tweeter

You cannot imagine Donald Trump without his tweets because they almost always give people an accurate view of his mood. And they are pop culture gold and perfect fodder for comedy. Trevor Noah's The Daily Show has already produced a book and a travelling event called Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library and all the famous late night show hosts have made a ceremony out of voicing Trump tweets with exact voice inflections. There is Stephen Colbert of The Late Show who even dramatises Trump's twitter pauses with a hilarious emphasis on "dot dot dot dot" much to the amusement of his audience. Seth Meyers and his ‘A Closer Look’ segments, while ostensibly humourous takes, double up almost as performative journalism. As do the works of John Oliver and Samantha Bee. If the Dubya Era (George W. Bush) had one Jon Stewart, the “Drumpf” Era has multiple. The fodder for all of these segments - his Twitter feed. A “gift” that keeps on giving.

And as always when Trump is feeling cornered, a Twitter storm follows, with spelling and grammatical errors which in comparison to his chaotic policies, seem almost forgivable.

As Garrett Martin wrote in the Paste Magazine, "It’s hard to get too worked up over Donald Trump not knowing how to spell, what with all the racism, xenophobia, cronyism, collusion and class warfare coming out of his administration, but it’s also hard not to make fun of the guy for being so dense. And poetically the best and most direct way to mock our chowder head president is through the very same social media he uses to publicize his own ignorance. Twitter was his rise, and although it may not be his downfall it’s still a pretty great way to vent.”

So whether he is talking about a "smocking gun," or a “boarder security,” or a “Melanie” (come on dude, it’s your wife!) and for every misspelt tweet, there is a Saturday Night Live sketch, waiting to be born. In his own words, “Unpresidented.”

Through the year, apart from new gaffes, he made use of his all-time favourite terms like "crooked Hillary", "Deep State", "Witch Hunt," and "Fake News”. He compared the size of his nuclear button with that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, called himself a "stable genius" and also used terms like "dummy," "clown," "phoney" to describe his foes. Members of his own administration who have since left, unable to work in the blinding aura of his stable genius, have met his online wrath. Ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who was once a “star” is now “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell”; Omarosa, that complicated soulmate of his in another life, is now a “lowlife” and “wacky”. The New York Times list included news platforms like CNN, NBC, The New York Times (his favorites by far), journalists Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, Senator Elizabeth Warren whom he repeatedly and insultingly calls, "Pocahontas," basketball player LeBron James, activist and football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, actor Alec Baldwin, Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Sadiq Khan-the Mayor of London, former President Barack Obama and counting.

And when he was not tweeting this year, he was dropping gems as when he described Hurricane Florence thus, "This is a tough Hurricane, one of the wettest we’ve seen from the standpoint of water. Rarely have we had an experience like it and it is certainly not good.”

The man who once tweeted extensively about the breakup of the barely-in-their-twenties Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame and who used to go rants about Diet Coke, Ebola, and Katy Perry is now the President of the United States.

I understand that I, as an Indian citizen, do not have much locus to make fun of the leader of another country (glasshouses etc) but, really, God Save America.

Trump and Mueller: A tale of two Americas within one

For many observers, Trump and Robert Mueller represent two faces of American politics. One is willful and destructive. The other methodical and precise. Both, let’s not forget, members of the Republican Party. And while the whole world is waiting for Christmas, in the US, it is Muellertime for political analysts as they breathlessly watch every new twist and turn in the probe that has already seen a number of indictments including that of Trump's one-time confidante and lawyer Michael Cohen. The proceedings have left Trump feeling uneasy, to put it mildly. But while Trump's tweets have more or less an amusement value, what is more newsworthy is the biggest political scandal since Watergate to hit Washington. As federal prosecutors and special counsel Robert Mueller inch closer to the heart of the rot in the Russia investigation to pinpoint the source of possible collusion between Moscow and Trump, what is clear as daylight is that Donald Trump is now facing at least 17 court cases helmed by different prosecutors and investigators.

As Mueller's probe into the question of Russian influence in the 2016 election campaign deepens, the stench of money, intrigue and corruption gets thicker and harder to ignore.

As Wired put it in a piece, Mueller has made a good note of another lesson from Watergate, when Deep Throat uttered his now famous line: “Follow the money.”

It all began in 2016 with Russian trolls using memes to divide voters.

But since then, things have become far more complicated. Wired said, "More than two years in, the constellation of current investigations involves questions about foreign money and influence targeting the Trump campaign, transition, and White House from not just Russia but as many as a half-dozen countries. Prosecutors are studying nearly every aspect of how money flowed both in and out of Trump’s interconnected enterprises, from his hotels to his company to his campaign to his inauguration. While President Trump once said that he’d see investigations into his business dealings as crossing a “red line,” it appears that Trump himself obliterated that line, intermingling his business and campaign until it was impossible for prosecutors to untangle one without forensically examining the other."

The Wired piece outlines the investigations targeting Trump’s world from local, state, and federal prosecutors and we reproduce here some of the keynotes of the ongoing probe:

>The Special Counsel is investigating the Russian government’s core attack on the 2016 election, which included both active cyber intrusions and data theft and attempted attacks on the US voting system, as well as online information influence operations. At the heart of this probe is, as the piece says, whether and how Russia’s expensive and multi-pronged attack coordinated with contacts between Russian nationals and the Trump campaign over the course of 2016.

>WikiLeaks' role in the publishing of the democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers and whether Trump associates had at least some advance knowledge of these leaks is also a question that will be answered in time.

>Mueller is also investigating the Middle Eastern influence and the role of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel in helping the Trump campaign in view of their business ties with Trump and/or the presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.

>Paul Manafort was once chairing the Trump campaign but since then has been indicted for money laundering and eight felonies before he accepted a plea agreement on other charges. Notably, Manafort associate Sam Patten has pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent and his business partner Rick Gates has also pleaded guilty to his own role in the money laundering scheme.

>Mueller is also investigating the Trump Organization’s pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow, a proposed project that extended longer into the campaign and proceeded into more serious conversations than previously admitted. We quote, "The special counsel also noted how the project would be worth “hundreds of millions” of dollars, far more than a normal Trump licensing deal, leading to questions about why it would have been so lucrative. The case also connects the Trump Organization’s business deals, and the campaign, directly to the office of Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose government was at the time busily engaged in the attack on the US election. Moreover, according to statements by congressional investigators and documents released from Congress’s own Russia investigation, other figures, including Donald Trump Jr., may face legal exposure about their own testimony on the Trump Tower Moscow project."

>As is common knowledge, Michael Cohen, Trump's erstwhile lawyer and associate has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the status of the project and is cooperating with investigators.

>At least 14 Trump associates, reports Wired, had contact with Russia during the campaign and transition, from foreign policy aide Carter Page to would-be attorney general Jeff Sessions. We quote, "Questions continue to surround many of those contacts, not least of all the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 that included Trump Jr., Kushner, and Paul Manafort. Both national security adviser Michael Flynn and foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to charges related to their campaign and transition contacts with Russia. Cohen and Flynn have both provided extensive cooperation to Mueller about the campaign and transition contacts." Unquote.

>Apart from charges of 'obstruction of justice', the Presidency has faced the biggest upheaval in recent times with revelations around Michael Cohen, and the hush money payments to cover up extramarital affairs in the final weeks of the 2016 election - specifically to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen MacDougal.

>There are also questions around inauguration funding and The Wall Street Journal has reported that prosecutors are digging into the record $107 million raised and spent by the Trump inauguration committee, potentially with concerns about where that money came from and where it went, based in part on documents and evidence seized during the Michael Cohen investigation. We quote Wired, " Journalists have long raised questions about where the inauguration money went, and the FBI expressed concern about the Russian elites who appeared at the event. We already know that at least some shady money was involved: Manafort associate Sam Patten’s plea agreement includes that he helped a Ukrainian businessman funnel $50,000 to the inauguration." Unquote.

>Other investigations are examining Trump’s tax payments, shady foreign lobbying and Trump Foundation's violations of campaign finance laws and more. And we have just scratched the surface here of what the Mueller investigation has thrown up this year.

The goings on in the White House have fed the news cycle by the second and even spawned a few books about Trump's erratic presidency.

Trump: The Muse

Trump's White House has both been a source of hilarity and disbelief and writers like Bob Woodward have used the material thrown up every day by the news to write books that one day may even be considered as historical documents of a rather tumultuous time in American politics.

Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House is perhaps the best known of the lot . The book was released on September 11, 2018 and was based on hundreds of hours of interviews with members of the Trump administration. The book sold 1.1 million copies (across all formats) in the first week of its release and for good reason.

Woodward is, after all, known for his starring role in exposing the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency. The Pulitzer award-winning Woodward has also written books on nine presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama but this book is unlike any other because Trump is a president unlike any other.

The book's title comes from an actual Trump quote during an interview, "Real power is, I don't even want to use the word, fear."

The book throws up stunning revelations about how frazzled Trump aides do damage control by sometimes hiding papers to prevent him from signing them (Gary Cohn). And how the soon-to-leave, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly once referred to Trump as an "idiot" and "unhinged", while Secretary of Defense James Mattis compared his understanding to that of "a fifth or sixth grader."

Other tell all books about Trump's disorganised and dysfunctional White House include journalist Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury and former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman's Unhinged.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff also did well this year and reached the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Business Insider also mentioned Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War over the Truth by Howard Kurtz, as an important book because it focussed on the contentious relationship between Trump and the media.

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum was also published this year and Frum who is a former White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush and currently a columnist for The Atlantic, opines how this current presidency is damaging the democratic fabric of the country.

Business Insider also names It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America by David Cay Johnston, as an important piece of reporting as it focuses on Trump's disregard for the federal government and his irrational obsession with a wall along the US-Mexican border etc.

The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game by Ronald Kessler is another account of the goings on in the White House and implicates Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as the reasons behind some of Trump's worse policy decisions.

April Ryan, a White House reporter who has taken on Trump and his aides often during press briefings has also written a book, Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House.

Not to be left behind are the pro-Trump writers. And Business Insider mentions books like The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography by David Brody and Scott Lamb, Killing the Deep State: The Fight to Save President Trump by Jerome Corsi, The Capitalist Comeback: The Trump Boom and the Left's Plot to Stop It by Andrew Puzder, The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump" by Gregg Jarrett as cases in point.

Even disgraced former White House press secretary Sean Spicer has written a book called The Briefing: Politics, The Press, and The President where he describes Trump as a "unicorn riding a unicorn across a rainbow."

Another New York Times bestseller about Trump is Judge Jeanine Pirro's book, Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy, which confronts the alleged "Deep State" conspiracy against Trump and also tackles fake news, corruption in the law enforcement community, and national security leaks.

We are not making recommendations one way or another, but we will give you a hint - one set of books relies on journalistic inquiry.

Trump: The muddled policy maker

As we have been reporting on Moneycontrol, Trump's policies are generally thought of as being more about impulse and not necessarily philosophy. As Twitter has demonstrated over and over again, for every position he takes now, he has taken the diametric opposite position on the same issue sometime in the past.

There has been a lot of acrimony and drama between US and China which was partially addressed at the end of a long awaited and avidly watched meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping in Argentina during the recent G-20 Summit, where China pledged to purchase more goods from the U.S. and open its market, while Washington decided to postpone plans to raise tariffs on Chinese goods.

Earlier however, Trump had threatened to raise tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on Chinese imports worth $250 billion (£195 billion) and to impose new tariffs on the rest of Chinese imports, worth $267 billion.

But as Bob Davis wrote in The Wall Street Journal on December 2, 2018, a truce postponing added tariffs at the G-20 summit gives the two nations about three months to resolve issues that have long divided them. But it does not offer at first glance, any lasting peace.

As many observers, including CNBC have said, It's not over: The US-China trade war is still on despite 90-day tariff ceasefire. CNBC's correspondent Yen Nee Lee wrote on December 3 that even though stocks in Asia traded higher and U.S. stock futures jumped after the meeting, experts have expressed doubt that any concrete steps to totally ease tensions between the two economic giants can be achieved within that time frame. Realistic trade deals after all take years to negotiate every contentious issue.

This meeting, many said, was also part of an ongoing pattern that Donald Trump is known for. According to Antonio Fatas, an Economics professor at INSEAD, the meeting was simply a continuity of the trade policy that the Trump administration has had. And that policy involves the president finding a way to "break" things and then fix them, which results in a sort of relief that things are back together. So he can them claim on Twitter that he fixed things he broke in the first place.

The same pattern was visible during his interactions with "Little Rocket Man" or North-Korean leader Kim Jong-un. After comical threats promising "Fire and Fury", Trump was surprisingly full of admiration post his quasi-historic meeting with Kim this year. We use the word 'quasi' because no concrete benefit from the meeting has as yet manifested though many of his admirers wanted a Nobel Peace Prize for their stable genius.

The June 12 meeting in the end was more beneficial for the image of Kim Jong-un than for Trump because without any clear promise to denuclearise, the former managed a diplomatic coup with America. As we have reported before, to occupy the same stage as an American President has been a matter of great prestige for North Korean leaders and both the father and the grandfather of Kim Jong-un struggled to accomplish this feat and failed because of their persistence to continue with their nuclear programme and unwillingness to go with the US's insistence upon denuclearisation.

As we reported earlier in a podcast, President Barack Obama never got to the point of believing that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and refused to react to what he called was "provocative behaviour". What he was referring to were the occasional, immature threats that North Korea issued to both the US and South Korea.

Finally, the much awaited Trump-Kim meeting turned out to be nothing more than a photo op to stroke mutual egos.

Another feature of Trump's Presidency this year has been his open admiration for totalitarian leaders like the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte who is notorious for his support to extrajudicial killing of drug users and other criminals.

His admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin is no secret and he has also admired on occasion how Kim Jong-un has decimated opposition to manage North Korea post his father's demise. His support for the far right French leader Marine Le Pen is also well documented.

The same disregard for humanitarian values has marked his deferential treatment of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite the fact that members of Congress have been briefed by the CIA with compelling evidence that the Prince was in fact behind the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump has persisted in defending Mohammed bin Salman with statements like, “He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally.” His reason to say so - they bring in money. To say nothing also of the Saudi role in his getting elected, as recent reports have indicated.

He has made it clear that arms purchases, the price of oil and monetary consideration are more important to his administration than a free press and the protection of human rights.

To refresh your memory a bit, Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident, author, columnist for the Washington Post, and a general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel who was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 by agents of the Saudi government.

Trump has himself attacked free press in the US and his followers have even issued death threats to prominent US journalists like Don Lemon.

Another diplomatic failure on his part has been his rejection of The Paris Agreement as a unified process for decarbonization, according to Foreign Policy. We quote, "The agreement’s momentum, has now been halted by a countervailing force. Call it the “Trump effect.” It has become increasingly clear that Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t just led to the withdrawal of the United States from the landmark agreement. It has also halted the rest of the world’s efforts."

How has he done it?

We quote, "First, the rollback of environmental regulations burdensome to the fossil fuel industry, including major Obama-era policies to fight climate change, has increased the attractiveness of investing in the dirtiest fossil fuels. The risk that these investments could be “stranded” by committed climate policy has been reduced.

Second, the U.S. decision to withdraw has created political and moral cover for further defections from the agreement. Russia and Turkey have abandoned plans to ratify, while Australia reversed a decision to implement measures to comply with its Paris pledge, all citing Trump’s withdrawal decision. Most significantly, the newly elected president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, also pointing to the precedent established by Trump."

Finally, says the piece, the Trump administration’s behaviour is souring goodwill between developing and developed country parties at ongoing negotiations and has had a negative impact worldwide. We quote, "The Trump administration reneged on a pledge to the Green Climate Fund, leaving an outstanding liability of $2 billion, and has opposed stringent rules for reporting on financial commitments. These decisions have aggravated distrust between developed and developing countries."

So as you can see, Trump's presence in the White House has not just affected how America functions on a daily basis but how the world grapples with economic, social, environmental and political issues.

The most egregious impact of the Trump presidency has been an attack on truth. Experts are dismissed, the freedom of the press questioned, and the quality of social and political discourse changed for the worse.

How this reality television show they call the United States of America will end is the stuff truly good reality TV and truly sad democracies are made of.

Trump, when asked by interviewers how he would grade himself, has never given himself a grade less than A+. Bless. E for effort.

Moneycontrol Contributor
first published: Dec 19, 2018 08:11 am

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