Another White House Leak

Alan Zendell, March 21, 2018

Oh no! Someone in the White House leaked another embarrassing bit of news to the media. Apparently, the presidents’ national security team “instructed” him not to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election victory, but he did it anyway. Many in Congress reacted immediately, calling Trump’s action wrong and inappropriate. Senator John McCain (R, Arizona) was perhaps the loudest and most pointed, saying: “an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.” Senator Ben Cardin (D, Maryland) added his voice in a live interview this morning.

That’s the story on the surface, but there’s a lot more to it. The disregarded warning to the president was included in his classified daily security briefing. Chief of Staff John Kelly was furious, and an aide said that leaking such information is a fireable offense and likely illegal because of the sensitive nature of these briefings. This becomes more interesting because the usual suspects for this leak are a relatively small list; only a few people in the White House have access to the briefings, and no one outside the White House is supposed to.

The story actually gets worse. White House staff are now saying the president probably never read the briefing, that he frequently calls foreign leaders disregarding the advice of his security team, and it would not be unusual if he hadn’t looked at the briefing before calling Putin. I can’t decide whether it’s more disturbing that the president generally ignores advice from his inner circle or that he doesn’t even bother to read it.

I and many others have commented since Trump took office that running his real estate empire on gut feeling is quite different from governing the country that way. In his businesses he only places his family and employees at risk, and he has a long track record of not caring about the latter. But as president, he must care, and the people he puts at risk are all of us.

If leaking the contents of the security briefing could cost the leaker his job and possibly result in a felony charge, why would anyone take that risk? If the people who regularly leak sensitive or scandalous information from the White House were sworn enemies of the president, it would be understandable. But some of the most damaging leaks come from within the president’s inner circle, which is comprised of people he appointed, and we know that the single most important quality Trump seeks in his appointees is personal loyalty.

That tells me the reports of chaos in the White House are accurate. It says that even people whose job is to protect the president politically have such serious concerns about his actions and decisions, they’d risk career-ending consequences to assure that people know. Very few on Capitol Hill doubt that fired Secretary of State Tillerson actually called Trump a moron. And even if we discount half of what Michael Wolff wrote in Fire and Fury, the fact that so many people on Trump’s staff were willing to speak to freely about the horror show they work in ought to concern every American.

This latest mini-scandal is no laughing matter, and everything else aside, Trump’s reactions to Putin’s victory against the backdrop of his inexplicable admiration for the murderous dictator, say more than the words themselves. Equally inexplicable is that virtually in the same breath, Trump continued to attack and attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation into Russian interference and possible collusion with Trump’s people.

Things look bleak enough when Trump acts outrageously with clear motive and intent. But this thing he has for Putin is even more distressing simply because it appears to make no sense. No doubt Mr. Mueller has the same reaction, which is he why he keeps expanding his probe and is now looking into Trump’s business dealings. When every other rational explanation for Trump’s behavior falls apart we are left with only one inescapable conclusion.

Fantastic as it seems, Putin and his friends among the Russian oligarchs may have something very damaging on Trump, and the president’s fury over Mueller’s actions admit to only two reasonable explanations. One is that his ego and natural tendency to react violently to personal affronts dominate his actions. The other is that he’s really guilty.

Which would be worse?

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Under Siege

Alan Zendell, March 20, 2018

“Under siege” is one of those phrases that’s so overused it’s almost a cliché. This week it’s being used by every news outlet to describe the Trump White House. To me, it evokes memories of Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett at the Alamo. (No, I’m not old enough to actually remember it.) Isolated and badly outnumbered, the Texan defenders fought to the end, with Mexican General Santa Anna ordering no quarter in the final battle.

The defenders, who had actually taken the Alamo from the Mexicans months earlier, could have abandoned the fight when it became clear they would lose. Though we lionize the Legend of the Alamo today, it’s really a lesson in what happens when we pursue lost causes in defiance of reason. Is that what’s going on at the White House these days?

Trump seems to be under siege from every direction. One could argue that everyone’s piling on now that they sense he’s vulnerable. But it can also be argued that Trump’s problems are mostly of his own making. Consider: there’s the Mueller investigation, the indiscretions of Trump’s son which fanned the flames when they might have been squelched months ago, the Access Hollywood tape which lends more than a little credibility to the stories of all the women who claim either consensual affairs or sexual assault by Mr. Trump, and finally, the president’s strange affinity for the man who should be his arch enemy, Vladimir Putin.

If he seems isolated, that too is a product of his own actions. His disregard of the norms of governing and his lack of respect for the truth have alienated him from much of his party. Relentless attacks and insults against Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell, and insults aimed at fellow Republicans John McCain, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and Lindsay Graham as well as key members of his Cabinet have resulted in the wall of silence that stands in place of what would normally be vocal support for the president.

Trump’s well known approach to accusations hurled against him is deny, deny, deny. That worked during the presidential campaign, so why not continue the same way now? Actually there may be good reason to change tactics, as more and more becomes known about what really happened. The recent disclosures by Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, who was filmed by British Channel 4 bragging that he met frequently during the 2016 campaign with Trump and helped elect him were the latest revelation.

Now Trump is being sued by three women, a porn star, a former Playboy Playmate of the Month, and a former contestant on The Apprentice, all claiming they had affairs with Trump and were paid hush money to cover them up. One of them, porn star Stormy Daniels has now publicly passed a polygraph test with greater than 99% certainty that she’s telling the truth. Is this piling on or is it more a case where, as the smoke keeps getting thicker it’s more likely something’s on fire?

As Special Counsel Mueller begins to close in on Trump’s financial dealings amid widespread speculation that Trump’s businesses may be in debt by as much as a billion dollars to Russians with close ties to Putin, how does the president react? He rails against his Cabinet and intensifies his attacks on both the Justice Department and the FBI. And while proclaiming his innocence and renewing claims that the probe of his finances is just another witch hunt, he expands his legal team to include television personalities, an impeachment specialist, and experts on nondisclosure agreements.

Again, it might be argued that an innocent man might well do all those things, except for the appalling silence from all the people who should be standing up in his defense. Instead we hear references to the need to uphold the rule of law and allow the Mueller investigation to reach its conclusion without further interference. That sounds more like a warning than a defense of the president. It also sounds like posturing from experienced politicians who see an impending train wreck that could take them down with him.

Just as the 1830s Texan appropriated the Alamo from under General Santa Anna’s nose, Trump stole the Republican Party out from under the Ryans and McConnells, and those people have long memories. As the noose tightens and the wolves close in on their prey, don’t be surprised if they are just as merciless as General Santa Anna was.

On the other hand, as Trump feels more and more cornered, what might this paranoid narcissist do to defend himself? Is anything off the table?

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Faded Magic

Alan Zendell

Every year, toy manufacturers come up with a new set of flashy playthings. They’re brightly colored and they promise hours of fun. Our kids see them in TV commercials and on store shelves, and leading up to birthdays and holidays we’re treated to a months long litany of “Daddy, can I have that?” and “Mommy, please buy that for me.”

The promises abound — so easy to assemble a five-year-old could do it; the most challenging and exciting item on the market; so durable your children will play with it for years; and everyone’s favorite – batteries included.

We’ve all experienced the reality, however. The box contains 150 parts, but a few of the critical pieces are missing. The assembly instructions were originally written in Mandarin and translated into English by an Albanian technician whose native language is Turkish, and you wind up throwing them away. When the thing is finally assembled, the kids play with it for a week, when it either breaks or bores them to death. We’ve been had, and we resolve that we won’t let it happen again.

The thing is, that’s not really what happened. We weren’t fooled. Some of us knew all that would happen when we let ourselves be distracted by the flash and flare, like it usually does when we don’t do our homework. But we hadn’t yet learned to not be tempted by the serpent, so we did it anyway.

A collaboration between Abraham Lincoln and W. C. Fields might read: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull, and you’ll sometimes fool everyone.” That’s a pretty good description of the American political scene for the last thirty-two months. Yes, that’s how long we’ve been listening to Donald Trump’s rants and cringing to his tweets. It was flashy and dazzling at first, and in the absence of a candidate that captured the hearts of the majority, the flash and bang won out over the bland and sometimes incompetent.

Many of those who bought all that stuff now realize what a pile of crap they wound up with. They’re the ones Lincoln meant when he (may have) said, “you cannot fool all the people all the time.” The glitter disappears, the brightness dims, and what seemed magical a few months ago is revealed as illusion. When the magic fades we’re left with the tragi-comical little man behind the curtain. And he’s steering the ship.

The fake wizard is still a great showman. When he dons his cape and turns on the cameras he can still throw a mean rally. Like an aging drug-addled rock star, he still fills the arena with screaming fans. They are as loud and raucous as ever, but that obscures a cautionary fact. There’s a noticeable difference in the audience. Every seat is occupied by a true believer and there are fewer in line waiting to get in. The curiosity seekers are gone. So are the disenchanted lost souls who’d been seeking something to believe in because they felt betrayed by the other side. They now know this isn’t what they were looking for. The magic has faded and we are left with what’s real, and for most of the country, it’s a darker reality than they faced a year ago.

With the magic gone, when we look inside the White House we find the same spoiled brat bully whose father had to send him away to military school. But the hoped-for discipline didn’t change him for the better. It didn’t make him any more moral or sensitive to other people. It simply hardened him against the cruel world in which everyone was against him. It made him unable either to trust or be trusted, and it heightened his narcissism and need for adulation.

Let’s hope that next time the parties choose substance over glitz. Conor Lamb showed us that there are a lot of good people out there with both strength and integrity who have no need to raise their voices or intimidate anyone. This isn’t about politics or parties. It’s about being honest with ourselves about how we got we are, and it is definitely not all Donald Trump’s fault. The Democrats rigged their primary and wound up with a hobbled candidate who couldn’t overcome her own missteps.

There are a lot of competent people out there whose principles are strong enough to survive without some radical ideology, who care about public service and understand what making America great again really means. If we can find a few of those who can generate a different sort of magic, we’ll get through this unscathed.

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Pennsylvania’s 18th District

Alan Zendell, March 14, 2018

Before I forget, happy Pi Day.

We’ve already been hearing a lot of nonsense from the so-called pundits about yesterday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. As the votes were being counted, various talking heads opined that it really didn’t matter who won – the real message was that the race never should have even been close in a district Trump won by twenty percentage points. While it’s true that the race shouldn’t have come down to absentee ballots, the notion that it doesn’t matter who won is absurd.

The closeness of the election shocked both the Republican establishment and the White House, but without a victory the message would have been hollow. Having Rick Saccone, aka Trump Lite, in the Congress instead of the very centrist Democrat Conor Lamb would have been all that really mattered a month from now. Remember the furor over Kennedy’s contested victory over Nixon and Bush’s chaotic win over Gore that had to be decided in the Supreme Court? Does any of that matter today?

Both Kennedy and Bush turned the country in entirely new directions from their predecessors’, despite the fact the half the country voted against both of them. Even in a district that won’t exist next November, Lamb’s voice and face in House of Representatives will be a constant reminder and rallying cry of what his victory meant.

The other, even worse nonsense that we’ll be hearing from the White House is that this is only one seat in one district. It’s an aberration. It’s insignificant in terms of the November mid-term election. Well, no. It absolutely is significant. It’s of monumental importance, and more than any of the special elections in 2017, it’s a harbinger of what we’re going to see eight months from now.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 2016, Donald Trump received 46.7 percent of the popular vote. I don’t know exactly what the vote count was in Pennsylvania’s 18th, but for the sake of argument, let’s represent Trump’s vaunted twenty percent win as 60-40. This week’s special election was a virtual dead heat, 50-50, in a district that was the quintessential example of those that resulted in Trump’s victory. It couldn’t have been more representative of that part of Trump’s base − coal country, rust belt, mostly white, wealthier than average − that he needs to retain if he expects to win re-election or have a Congress he can work with in 2019 and 2020. The fact that Saccone cast himself as a virtual Trump clone, makes the result of the election a clear repudiation of the president.

If Trump’s base in this district represented sixty percent of the 2016 vote, the fifty percent showing for Saccone suggests that the president has lost the confidence of one-sixth of his base. Let’s project that across the board. If we reduce Trump’s 46.7% in 2016 by the same one sixth, we get 38.9%. Whether or not you have any respect for polls, that number bears a startling similarity to Trump’s current approval rating which has trended downward from the high forties as low as the mid-thirties and now hovers around 40%.

If you don’t believe Lamb’s victory was a rejection of Trumpism, consider how much Trump invested in attempting to salvage this win for the Republican Party. The rafter-shaking buffoonery at the campaign rally he staged wasn’t enough to stem the Democratic tide, even when it was supplemented by personal visits from Vice President Pence and Donald Trump Jr, and the announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum, which were obviously timed to influence this election.

Lamb’s win also signals possible changes in the Democratic Party leadership. He was clear throughout the campaign that he would not support Nancy Pelosi. There’s no doubt that the Democrats have floundered under her direction, and she has become the Conservatives’ symbol of everything they hate about the progressive movement in this country.

Lamb is being held up as a new kind of Democrat, a model of the sort of candidate that can shift the balance of power away from the Republicans. Of course, if Conor Lamb’s campaign is replicated a few dozen times, and the Democratic Party does retake control of Congress, it will be a very different party from the one that managed to bungle a presidential election that everyone thought was impossible to lose.

Hmmm, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, either for the Democrats or the nation.

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Guns And Nukes

Alan Zendell, March 12, 2018

I learned important lessons about guns and nuclear weapons when I was growing up.

Living across the street from a Brooklyn firehouse as a child, I was frequently awakened in the middle of the night by piercing sirens (with no air conditioning the windows were usually open) convinced that we were about to be incinerated. I rode my bike to Coney Island when I was eleven and was greeted by a billboard left over from World War 2 — “In the event of an air raid, don’t panic. This is not a target area.” The next time I was there with the advent of the Soviet Union’s H-bomb tests, the billboard had been removed.

Remember those duck-and-cover drills in school? They’d been dispensed with by the time my kids were in school because they’d become moot. The reality that we could have been nuked at any moment during the Cold War caused that whole generation of young people to question whether they would live to become adults. And now my grandkids live with the new reality of Iran and North Korea.

No problem facing our country and the world is more serious than the nuclear threat of North Korea, even though it’s Japan and South Korea that are squarely in the crosshairs. Every president from Eisenhower to Obama has been unable to deal successfully with NK’s dynasty of rogue leaders. If that taught us anything, it was that the problem cannot be solved with cavalier bravado.

I, like everyone else, had a moment of elation when I heard that Kim Jong Un had invited President Trump to Pyongyang to negotiate, and that Trump had immediately accepted. The moment lasted until I remembered all the promises broken by Kim’s father and grandfather and the way the latest of the Kim dictators has used the journalistic and social media like his own personal propaganda machines. The latest Kim incarnation is bold and wily, not someone who can be bluffed or intimidated at the negotiating table.

To make matters worse, on our side of the table we’ll have the great deal maker who has failed miserably at everything he couldn’t do by Executive Order except supporting the Republican tax cut tsunami. Our president eschews advice (Secretary of State Tillerson, who should be at the forefront has been silent) and believes he’s capable of Herculean feats no one else would even attempt; he shoots from the hip, prefers insults and hyperbole to substance, and has no respect for truth or facts, except those he invents; and finally, he continually says one thing one day and contradicts himself the next, and believes that’s an effective negotiating tactic because it makes him seem unpredictable.

On one hand the world’s leaders mock him, even those, like Putin who heap false praise on him. On the other they must deal and pay homage to the Commander in Chief of the world’s most deadly military force. But Kim Jong Un is in his own category, and there is no reason to believe that Trump can hold his own with him one-on-one much less outmaneuver him. So my short-lived elation turned to concern because if Trump fails to get an agreement, we’re all in greater jeopardy than we are now.

I learned enough about guns when I was fourteen to make a lasting impression. I was part of a group of teenagers being taught how to use a .22 caliber rifle responsibly. Everyone followed the rules perfectly and the targets were sensibly located on a board fence with nothing behind them except open forest. Yet, when the signal was given to fire, we nearly killed a two-year-old child who had crawled behind the fence unobserved.

The lesson is that no matter how many precautions we take, guns can kill, and rules only work when error-prone humans don’t screw up or deliberately evade them. When our president met with mourning, traumatized high school students and promised that he would lead the fight to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, and keep military-style assault weapons out of the hands of everyone except the military, we all thought, here’s his chance to be the president we hoped he would be.

But just as he has done with immigration and DACA, his words turned out to be empty. He mocked Republican Congresspeople for being terrified of the NRA, but when push came to shove, and the NRA threatened to turn his base against him, our fearless leader caved. Once again, when Donald Trump found himself in a situation where he couldn’t use his money and his lawyers to bully the opposition, he was just another stuffed shirt.

I have a feeling, however, that there’s one group of Americans who we can count on not to cave in to pressure. All those students who will be old enough to vote for the first time next November will turn out in droves, and the politicians who betrayed their trust will pay for their lack of moral courage.

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Chaos Theory

Alan Zendell, March 2, 2018

The theory goes, if you’re smarter than everyone else and a genius at tactics, timing, reading the crowd, and knowing where the escape tunnel is, you can juggle dozens of balls at once and no one but you will be able to keep track of them. And if you throw in a few red herrings, tell a bunch of outright lies, and contradict half of what you said today, tomorrow, claiming you never said whatever you contradicted in the first place, the resulting chaff will confuse any incoming missiles from your enemies (i.e., everyone else in the free world,) and the ensuing chaos and confusion will become a distraction that makes them weak and ineffective.

Human nature being what it is, even if a few on the other side, (actually sides, since part of your strategy is to make sure no one ever knows which side you’re really on,) are as smart as you are, they’ll all disagree and spend so much time bickering and figuring out how to undermine each other that by the time they’re ready to act, the train will have left the station with them still on the platform, and they won’t even be able to agree on which way it went.

If the preceding paragraphs sound disjointed, muddled, filled with stupid metaphors and hard to follow (at least they’re not ungrammatical) – you’re beginning to see the point. While you were re-reading it and trying to figure out what I was talking about I picked your pocket and instituted a tariff on your favorite coffee, because as everyone knows, it’s only the elites in blue states who appreciate good coffee. And in the resulting turmoil with every coffee-growing country screaming betrayal, the former British Commonwealth re-united to place a tariff on all tea not grown in India. And while all this was going on, another seven senior staffers in the West Wing were quietly shown the exits, and three cabinet secretaries, none of them Jeff Sessions, resigned due to scandals over falsified purchase orders and travel vouchers.

The unfortunate thing is that this badly scripted grade B movie is the reality we’re all living in. That may explain why no progress is being made in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and crazies, most Americans have no idea how they were screwed by the new tax bill, and we have no coherent plan to deal with either DACA or immigration in general. And of course, North Korea continues working in the shadows to develop a nuclear ICBM that can cross the Pacific in spite of all those tweets that have been hurled at them.

A year ago, with Steve Bannon’s shooting star hovering near its apogee, I and many others noted (Warcraft and Governance, February 20, 2017) his fascination for Sun Tzu’s ancient treatise on military strategy, The Art of War. We all asked the same question back then. Having seen Bannon and Trump apply the Sun Tzu formula of spreading chaos and confusion that worked in managing Trump’s real estate empire to the election campaign, would the same approach work for governing the country? We’ve now had more than a year to answer that question.

No one I know anywhere in the political spectrum can recall seeing a more disorganized, ineffective White House, except during the post-Watergate unraveling of the Nixon administration, and that was short lived thanks to a White House Chief of Staff and a Republican majority in Congress that joined forces to neutralize Nixon and force his resignation. Democratic political strategist Paul Begala addressed the situation today. Directing his remarks to Trump voters, he said (I’m paraphrasing) Trump was a lunatic during the campaign, he was a lunatic in his private life, and now he’s a lunatic trying to govern the country. You got what you asked for. How’s that working out for you?

Inasmuch as Trump’s favorability rating among all voters including Republicans is currently at an all-time low, based on polls taken prior to the Porter and security clearance scandals, most of the country including part of Trump’s vaunted base thinks it’s not working out as well as they’d hoped. Some of us fear that, to coin a phrase, “We ain’t seen anything yet.” Is this White House spiraling out of control like a jetliner with its tail shot off? Even the most skillful pilot couldn’t avert a catastrophe under those circumstances.

Each month we look at the situation and think it couldn’t possibly get worse, and yet it does. We warned you that running the White House like a family business wouldn’t, couldn’t work. We warned you about governing by tweet. And we warned all along that the only entity that might be able to change things for the better, the Republican majority in Congress, was too divided, too concerned with individual self-interest, and too ineffective in general to take action.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m scared.

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Who’s in Charge in the West Wing?

Alan Zendell, February 28, 2018

Among all the difficult jobs in the world, I’d have thought being the Marine General in charge of the U. S. Southern Command after two command combat roles in Iraq would rank pretty high. Who’d have imagined they were a piece of cake compared to managing the staff in the West Wing of the White House? When you consider that the staff contains both the president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, the idea doesn’t seem so far fetched.

In Kelly’s former jobs the word “command” had a clear definition. People either did their jobs properly and followed the general’s rules and protocols or they were removed. Everyone working for him understood that clearly. What senior military officer would accept a critical command assignment without that virtually absolute authority?

Remember when Kelly accepted the position of Chief of the White House staff? That was back in the days when Steve Bannon had constant access to the president and people like Sebastian Gorka, a right-wing extremist with questionable credentials and an outstanding arrest warrant in Hungary was advising him on terrorism and Islam. Kelly cleaned that mess up quickly, but that was easy compared to keeping a lid on the president’s erratic behavior and temper tantrums.

It was also a lot easier than managing Ivanka and Jared, who knew that daddy would always be there for them no matter what. The reports of Kelly’s disdain for both are too numerous and from too many different sources to be discounted. He has mocked Ivanka as a girl playing government, and his long-simmering mini-war with Kushner came to a head last week when Trump publicly stated that he was delegating all decisions on security clearance to Kelly, and that he was “sure he’d do the right thing.”

That’s exactly what Kelly did. He stripped Kushner’s Top Secret clearance, reportedly along with the clearances of 130 other staffers who had been handling sensitive information on interim clearances for more than a year. All this on the heels of credible reports that four foreign nations, all of which appear in Kushner’s portfolio of responsibilities, have been discussing how to use his inexperience and financial vulnerabilities to leverage policy with the president. And two of those countries, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, are pivotal to Kushner’s efforts to reach Middle East peace accords.

Rumors continue to fly about Kelly’s tenure in the White House. Trump really can’t fire him any more than he can fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or Special Counsel Robert Mueller without bringing down a firestorm of criticism on an administration whose credibility has already been stretched as far as it can be. So Kelly’s future in the West Wing is in his own hands. How long will he be willing to put up with the Trump Family White House?

Kelly’s present lack of command authority isn’t unique to him. When NSA Director, Admiral Mike Rogers was interviewed yesterday by the Senate Intelligence Committee, he revealed that while cyber threats from Russia and elsewhere continue to expand, and his people have the ability to counter them at their sources, he has not been given the authority to act by the president. His frustration as he revealed than on national TV, was evident.

And then there’s the situation surrounding National Security Advisor H.  R. McMaster. He publicly agreed with the findings of every law enforcement and security agency that confirmed Russian cyber attacks and interference in our elections, only to be contradicted by the president the next day because of his baseless refusal to accept reality. That makes three senior military advisers of unquestioned stature and ability who were appointed by this president, who’ve been emasculated by that same president who is totally out of his depth on matters of security.

It seems that our president still has not figured out that the White House is not his own private company. In the past when his shoot-from-the-hip approach to business got him in trouble he simply filed for bankruptcy, fired everyone he could, and took off leaving a pile of debris in his wake. Have you been to Atlantic City, New Jersey recently?

Governing the United States of America doesn’t work that way. The level of chaos that exists in this administration is unprecedented, and there’s a lot more at stake than Trump’s real estate empire. Physical objects that do not have a strong center of gravity can be toppled by a stiff breeze. The Trump administration is the political analog of such an object, a collection of people all traveling in different orbits with no apparent cohesion, the classic definition of a house of cards.

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