May 22, 2020

There were a number of stories today that suggest various interests are taking advantage of the Trump administration’s time in power to accomplish their own goals.

News broke this morning that when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put in place the $8.1 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last May over the objections of Congress, he pressed State Department officials to reverse engineer a justification for the emergency declaration he intended to use. According to a State Department official who complained to the State Department’s Inspector General Steve Linick, “They seemed to have a game plan and it had to be justified.”

Last week Trump gave Congress 30 days warning that he is removing Linick, who was investigating the issue. Now congressional Democrats are demanding more information on why Pompeo declared the emergency to force through the sales. It seems to me a very good question: why was the State Department so eager to sell arms, including sensitive military technology, to Saudi Arabia, at the same time the president was downplaying the Saudi leader's responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

We might well never find out, since Linick is evidently on his way out and a new Director of National Intelligence is on his way in. Today the Senate confirmed John Ratcliffe as DNI, the country’s top intelligence official, by a vote of 49-44. Ratcliffe, a Republican representative from Texas, has no experience in intelligence and is a fervent Trump loyalist.

Republicans voted in favor of the appointment, Democrats opposed it. There have been two acting DNI’s since Trump’s first nominee, Dan Coats, who was approved by the Senate in 2017 by a vote of 85-12, so this is only the second Senate vote on a DNI, but the shift from bipartisan support for Coats to a strict party line vote reveals Democratic concern over the politicization of our intelligence. Ratcliffe promised to be independent of Trump and to deliver honestly whatever intelligence he received, but he refused to confirm that he agrees with the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election or to promise to brief Congress on foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Also taking up a lot of oxygen today was the news that the White House is talking about resuming nuclear tests. The last test the United States conducted was in 1992, and restarting them would likely inspire other countries to follow suit, sparking a new arms race. The U.S. claims that Russia and China have recently deployed nuclear tests, although there is no public evidence that they have done so.

Trump has long been fascinated by nuclear weapons, and on its face, this information suggests his fascination might be manifesting itself in this new way.

But Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who studies Russia and nuclear weapons, took to Twitter to offer a different explanation. He thinks the push to reopen testing is coming from “a group of people in industry, think tanks, the military, and consulting firms who really miss the Cold War emphasis on nukes, because it was their life’s work… and it paid well.” They have been itching to get the program up and running again, and Trump is letting them. Nichols blames this group of people, “and especially the people who allied with them in the GOP Senate” for the move to reinstate nuclear testing.

The drive of all these various groups to accomplish their own ends means they would like to see the Trump administration continue in power, and the drive to make that happen, too, was buried in a news story today.

There was much ink spilled over Trump’s declaration that he is issuing guidance that says places of worship are “essential” and should be reopened. "Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics essential, but have left out churches and houses of worship. It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential," Trump told reporters. "The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend. If they don't do it, I will override the governors," he said.

Pundits noted Trump’s apparent misunderstanding of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states or to the people any powers not delegated to the federal government. But my guess is that this constitutional confusion is really a non-story: Trump has no intention of actually forcing churches to open up (what would that even look like?).

More important is that this is an important signal of how vulnerable his team is feeling as we get closer to the 2020 election. Trump has counted on increasing his religious support to offset his falling popularity with suburban women. But two recent surveys have found that Trump’s popularity with white evangelicals and white Catholics has fallen by more than ten percentage points in the last month.

Hence today’s announcement.

Meanwhile, another story notes that more than half the Twitter accounts calling for a reopening of the American economy are bots. Yet another notes that as we approach 100,000 dead of Covid-19, experts warn that the death toll is actually significantly higher, as people dying at home or in nursing homes are not tested, and as early deaths were misidentified as either influenza or pneumonia.

Today’s important but scattershot stories seem to me to present a snapshot of this administration: it is providing cover for lots of interests to accomplish their own private goals, but it is becoming more unpopular with ordinary Americans every day.

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Notes:

Arms sale: https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/21/politics/pompeo-saudi-arms-sale/index.html

https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/22/politics/religious-gatherings-cdc-coronavirus/index.html

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/22/trump-churches-evaneglicals-coronavirus-274842

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-administration-discussed-conducting-first-us-nuclear-test-in-decades/2020/05/22/a805c904-9c5b-11ea-b60c-3be060a4f8e1_story.html#comments-wrapper

Nichols:

Bots: https://www.businessinsider.com/nearly-half-of-reopen-america-twitter-accounts-are-bots-report-2020-5

Covid deaths: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/22/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-death-toll.html