Jeff Sessions is the Brains Behind Trump Policies

Now this is scary! According to the Washington Post, the mastermind behind the Muslim travel ban and other signature Trump policies is Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, soon to be confirmed as Attorney General.

“The early days of the Trump presidency have rushed a nationalist agenda long on the fringes of American life into action — and Sessions, the quiet Alabaman who long cultivated those ideas as a Senate backbencher, has become a singular power in this new Washington.

“Sessions’s nomination as Trump’s attorney general is scheduled to be considered Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, yet his influence in the administration extends far beyond the Justice Department. From immigration and health care to national security and trade, Sessions is the intellectual godfather of the president’s policies. Sessions’s reach extends throughout the White House, with his aides and allies accelerating the president’s most dramatic moves, including the ban on refugees and migrants from seven mostly Muslim nations that has triggered fear around the globe.

“The author of many of Trump’s executive orders is senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a Sessions confidant who was mentored by him and who spent the weekend overseeing the government’s implementation of the refu­gee ban. The tactician turning Trump’s agenda into law is deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, Sessions’s longtime chief of staff in the Senate. The mastermind behind Trump’s incendiary brand of populism is chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who promoted Sessions for years as chairman of the Breitbart website.”

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Quick Takes: Obama Weighs In

* As we all know, Barack and Michelle Obama are taking a much-deserved vacation right now. But with Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees, the former president has weighed in via his spokesperson Kevin Lewis.

President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country. In his final official speech as President, he spoke about the important role of citizens and how all Americans have a responsibility to be the guardians of our democracy — not just during an election but every day.

Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.

With regard to comparisons to President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, as we’ve heard before, the President fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith.

* Unprecedented times perhaps call for unprecedented measures. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear more like this:

John D. Gartner, a practicing psychotherapist who taught psychiatric residents at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, minces as few words as the president in his professional assessment of Trump.

“Donald Trump is dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being president,” says Gartner, author of “In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography.” Trump, Gartner says, has “malignant narcissism,” which is different from narcissistic personality disorder and which is incurable.

Gartner acknowledges that he has not personally examined Trump, but says it’s obvious from Trump’s behavior that he meets the diagnostic criteria for the disorder, which include anti-social behavior, sadism, aggressiveness, paranoia and grandiosity. Trump’s personality disorder (which includes hypomania) is also displayed through a lack of impulse control and empathy, and “a feeling that people … don’t recognize their greatness.

“We’ve seen enough public behavior by Donald Trump now that we can make this diagnosis indisputably,” says Gartner. His comments run afoul of the so-called Goldwater Rule, the informal term for part of the ethics code of the American Psychiatric Association saying it is wrong to provide a professional opinion of a public figure without examining that person and gaining consent to discuss the evaluation. But Gartner says the Trump case warrants breaking that ethical code.

* On the incompetence demonstrated by Trump’s executive order about immigrants and refugees, one has to wonder whether or not the administration considered things like this:

Just in: Israel seeking clarity on #TrumpTravelBan – 145,000 Jews born in 7 countries listed in EO incl 54,000 in Iraq & 45,000 in Iran

— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) January 30, 2017

* Sports reporter and columnist Sally Jenkins came up with an interesting assessment of the Trump administration’s first 10 days.

An old sports strategy: foul so much in the 1st 5 min of the game that the refs can’t call them all. From then on, a more physical game.

— Sally Jenkins (@sallyjenx) January 30, 2017

* It gets exhausting trying to track Trump’s lies. Johnathan Chait gives us four he’s told on his immigration executive order alone.

1. President Obama did the same thing.
2. Only 109 people were detained.
3. There were some big problems, but it was caused by Delta’s computer system.
4. The premier president loves surprises. Possibly the most interesting defense is that the administration was unable to use the normal interagency review process because it would have tipped off the terrorists.

On that last one, he points to this tweet from Trump:

If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the “bad” would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad “dudes” out there!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2017

But that leads to another lie:

Told you he’d slip and call it a ban

— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) January 30, 2017

* Finally, there has been some talk about whether or not there will even be a White House Correspondents Dinner this year. Even if it doesn’t happen, there will be this:

“Full Frontal” host Samantha Bee is planning to hold her own dinner the same night as the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, TBS announced on Monday.

The “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” will take place April 29 at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C…

All proceeds for “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” will go to benefit the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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WSJ: McCain Will Stand Up to Trump

While other Republican senators and congressman cower, Senator John McCain will not bow and scrape to Trump.

The Wall Street Journal writes today (sorry, can’t find the link–if you do, send it):

Sen. McCain has served notice he is the Republican lawmaker most willing to defy the new Republican president

The maverick is unleashed.

Sen. John McCain, famously independent-minded and fresh from his own resounding re-election victory, has served notice that he is the Republican lawmaker most willing to defy the new Republican president.

Some fret over how to handle their disagreements with Donald Trump; Mr. McCain exhibits no such uncertainty.

In just over a week’s time, Mr. McCain has called the new Trump ban on immigration from a set of Muslim-majority countries a recruiting boon for Islamic State radicals; threatened to codify Russian economic sanctions into law to prevent Mr. Trump from lifting them; called the president’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership “a serious mistake”; and called the idea of imposing a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico to pay for a border wall “insane.”

The senator also served noticed that he will fight any effort to reinstate waterboarding or other forms of torture in interrogation of terror suspects; and declared he may oppose the Trump nominee for budget director because of his past opposition to military spending and troop deployments in Afghanistan.

In short, frenetic as the new president has been, Mr. McCain is matching him step for step. Thus is a president willing to go rogue being matched by a powerful lawmaker—head of the Armed Services Committee and former GOP presidential nominee—prepared to do the same.

“The main thing is, do the right thing,” Mr. McCain said in an interview. “I feel, frankly, a greater burden of responsibility. The world’s on fire, we have more challenges than any time in the last 70 years and, with the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee and whatever influence I have, I need to exercise it because the responsibilities are so great.”

Mr. McCain said he is willing to work with Mr. Trump: “I believe there are areas where we certainly can.” In fact, he will be crucial to the president’s desire to ramp up military spending and overhaul defense procurement practices, areas where they are almost entirely in sync.

Plus, he said he has good relations with key Trump security nominees: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and national security adviser Michael Kelly. White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, he noted, was Wisconsin chairman of his 2008 presidential bid, and he has traveled abroad on congressional delegations with Vice President Mike Pence.
But, he said, he has no communication going with the president himself.

This is a potentially serious long-term problem for Mr. Trump. The president is not especially susceptible to criticism from Democrats, which is predictable and easily dismissed, but opposition from Republicans, who control both chambers and every committee of Congress, and thereby the Trump agenda, is far more important.

Republicans hold only a two-seat majority in the Senate, so the White House has little margin for error within the party there. Though Mr. McCain’s ability to unite Republicans behind him has long been questionable, Mr. Trump could ill afford it if Republican misgivings coalesced around a highly visible leader.

The bad blood isn’t surprising. Early in the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump belittled Mr. McCain’s horrific Vietnam War experience, during which his Navy attack jet was shot down and, while seriously injured, he spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison.

“He’s not a war hero,” Mr. Trump said. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

The comment came early in the Trump campaign, and many thought it would derail it. The fact it didn’t was a key initial sign of how much the GOP had changed.

Mr. McCain also noted that Breitbart News, the site previously overseen by top Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, has “attacked me incessantly for years.”

All that leaves lots of room for bad blood. Some of the disagreements are local. Mr. McCain argues that the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Mr. Trump wants to renegotiate, has benefited his home state of Arizona, and that the tariff on Mexican imports floated by the White House clearly would hurt it.

His own war experience with brutal treatment during incarceration leaves him starkly at odds with Mr. Trump’s belief that waterboarding and other forms of harsh interrogation are acceptable.

But the area that seems to most bother Mr. McCain isn’t personal; it is a seemingly deep disagreement with the new president over his desire to strengthen ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The last two American administrations, of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, similarly started “with the mistaken belief there would be improved relations with a hardened KGB colonel,” Mr. Putin, only to be disappointed, he said.

“The difference now versus before is he’s invaded a country”—Ukraine—and, he added, has tried to influence an American election.

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Trump’s Travel Ban Stirs Confusion, Anxiety On Campus


Harvard Medical School assistant professor Soumya Raychaudhuri runs a lab looking to cure tuberculosis and rheumatoid arthritis. On Saturday, his new research assistant was not allowed to board a plane to Boston because she is Iranian. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where over 40 percent of the faculty and graduate students are foreign-born, administrators and faculty gathered on Sunday to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order.

“I think everyone is very deeply concerned,” said Mohammad Alizadh, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “At the senior levels of the Institute and more within each department, I don’t think anyone’s taking this lightly.”

Colleges and universities across the country are scrambling to deal with Trump’s temporary travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries linked to concerns about terrorism.

Hours before her flight to Boston on Saturday, Harvard Medical School student Samira Asgari says a U.S. border agent in Frankfurt, Germany blocked her from entering the country because she’s Iranian.

“When I told him that I have a valid visa, he told me that it’s the American government who provides the visas, and they can change their mind any minute they want,” Asgari, 30, said via Skype in Switzerland.

After earning her PhD there at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Asgari had been accepted as a post-doctorate at Harvard Medical School. It was her dream research position.

“I knew that I wanted to go to Boston after my PhD for my training because it’s one of the greatest places for science in general but especially in my field, which is genomics,” Asgari said. “Boston really offers a unique opportunity for learning.”

Since Trump’s executive order went into effect on Friday, concrete implications of the new travel restrictions remain unclear. Still, Harvard has quietly been advising international students here and abroad and urging them to “assess whether it is worth the risk to travel outside the country.”

In a letter sent to the campus community Sunday afternoon, Harvard President Drew Faust strongly rebuked Trump’s travel ban.

“Nearly half of the deans of Harvard’s schools are immigrants — from India, China, Northern Ireland, Jamaica, and Iran,” Faust wrote. “Benefiting from the talents and energy, the knowledge and ideas of people from nations around the globe is not just a vital interest of the University, it long has been, and it fully remains, a vital interest of our nation.”

Harvard isn’t alone. Northeastern, Tufts, Boston University and the University of Massachusetts have all expressed concern and uncertainty in the days since Trump announced his ban.

MIT is urging its students to come back to campus immediately and offering them legal advice. In a statement, deans at MIT said they’re extremely concerned about the travel ban and they’re focusing on helping those who are directly affected.

Many institutions worry what might be next for the 15,000 students in the U.S. who come from the seven predominantly Muslim countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia –  named in Trump’s travel ban.

“This really is a balancing act,” said Terry Hartle, a senior advisor with the American Council on Education, which represents hundreds of college presidents in Washington, D.C. “No college or university official is going to question the centrality of the federal government keeping the border secure.”

Hartle says Trump’s travel ban appears to have been put in place without input from the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

“The colleges and universities that I’ve spoken with are greatly confused about the meaning of the executive order, in part, because this order was rolled out quickly and apparently without careful assessment within the administration,” Hartle said.

Despite widespread confusion and fear this weekend, Hartle points out that higher education has seen short periods of uncertainty for international students in the past.

After the September 11 attacks, there were calls to completely shut off international student visas to the United States. That never happened, but in 2002 the Bush administration did require residents of 25 Muslim-majority countries to report to the Department of Homeland Security and re-register for their visas.

Edward Alden, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy,” says it’s a shame that higher education is getting caught up in presidential politics.

Alden says Trump’s isolationist, “America First” rhetoric is an awful message to send to the best and brightest around the world.

“There are a lot of people who are wary about immigration, worried about terrorism and quite justly aggrieved, I think, with some of the negative consequences of international trade,” Alden said in a phone interview Sunday. “But I would suspect that very few people understand the impacts that these sorts of measures are going to have.”

For now, Harvard Medical School student Samira Asgari is staying in Switzerland. She hopes her situation is resolved soon, but, if not, she might start looking for other opportunities in Canada, Germany or Australia.

“I’m a researcher,” Asgari said. “I really love my job, so if I cannot go to America I will pursue research elsewhere.”

While studying at Harvard Medical School was her dream, Asgari says she won’t give up on her career.

WGBH’s Lydia Emmanouilidou contributed to this report.

[Cross-posted at On Campus: the WGBH News Higher Education Blog]

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The Death of Pragmatism

One of the things that has been pretty obvious for a while now is that Donald Trump and Barack Obama are polar opposites – and that applies to their personalities even more than it does their policies. Over the eight years of Obama’s presidency, one of the things that concerned some people on the left was his commitment to pragmatism – especially when it was not ideologically infused. No one captured that better than James Kloppenberg in his book, Reading Obamawhere he describes Obama as a pragmatist in the mold of William James and John Dewey.

That pragmatism was on display with the two pieces of advice Obama had for Trump.

Two basic pieces of advice Obama gave Trump:

1. Put in place a process that’s respectful of law.

2. Reality has a way of asserting itself.

— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) January 30, 2017

On the other side of the continuum, we have Trump. Here’s what Harold Pollack wrote about the president’s latest executive order on immigrants and refugees:

The President’s team had months to prepare this signature immigration initiative. And they produced…an amateurish, politically self-immolating effort that humiliated the country, provoked international retaliation, and failed to withstand the obvious federal court challenge on its very first day.

Given the despicable nature of this effort, I’m happy it has become a political fiasco. It also makes me wonder how the Trump administration will execute the basic functions of government. This astonishing failure reflects our new President’s contempt for the basic craft of government.

In a must-read piece on the same topic, Benjamin Wittes writes that Trump’s order is malevolence tempered by incompetence. On the latter he says:

How incompetent is this order? An immigration lawyer who works for the federal government wrote me today describing the quality of the work as “look[ing] like what an intern came up with over a lunch hour. . . . My take is that it is so poorly written that it’s hard to tell the impact.” One of the reasons there’s so much chaos going on right now, in fact, is that nobody really knows what the order means on important points.

First of all, note that word…chaos. Many of us have been suggesting that is a feature, not a bug when it comes to this administration. Recently Ondine, MD (an assistant professor of psychiatry) posted a tweet storm that captures what the death of pragmatism means for our democracy.

@KurtSchlichter But it is also… very much not easy. Trump says, Step one! Step 10. As if Step 2-9 don’t exist.

— Ondine, MD (@JMCFRAVA) January 29, 2017

@KurtSchlichter In sometimes painstaking detail because without it there is nothing. Only the Rule of the Strongest.

— Ondine, MD (@JMCFRAVA) January 29, 2017

@KurtSchlichter It is Efficient in blotting out and Erasing what made us Exceptional. Different from a Dictatorship. New. Valuable.

— Ondine, MD (@JMCFRAVA) January 29, 2017

@KurtSchlichter You cannot go back to them because they wither in the Dark. They must be Lived, every Day.

— Ondine, MD (@JMCFRAVA) January 29, 2017

@KurtSchlichter Because they will have died. Like a plant you forgot to water. A story no one told their children anymore. The line broke.

— Ondine, MD (@JMCFRAVA) January 29, 2017

@KurtSchlichter There have been Trumps throughout human history. In the end, they always wreck everything. Including themselves.

— Ondine, MD (@JMCFRAVA) January 29, 2017

This is the connection between chaos and authoritarianism (i.e., dictatorship of the strong man). The death of pragmatism is the first step in the death of democracy.

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SCOTUS Fight Will Change Everything

There was no filibuster of Robert Bork’s 1987 confirmation for the Supreme Court. He was given a vote on the floor of the Senate and defeated 42-58. There was no filibuster of Clarence Thomas even though one could have been theoretically sustained considering that he only received 52 votes to be confirmed as a Justice to the Supreme Court. In both cases, the Democrats granted their unanimous consent to a motion to proceed to a full confirmation vote. However, there is no possibility that there will be unanimous consent to proceed to a similar vote on the nominee President Trump announces tomorrow night at 8pm. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, for one, will exercise his right to object.

The best precedent for this happened when John Kerry objected to proceeding to a vote on Samuel Alito, but his effort went down to defeat and Alito was confirmed with 58 votes, which was less than the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. If those Democrats who refused to confirm Alito had refused to allow a vote at all, he would likely not be on the Supreme Court today.

I say “likely,” because it’s possible that the Republicans would have responded by invoking the so-called Nuclear Option and taking away the minority party’s right to stop a vote on Supreme Court nominees. It’s hard to say if that would have happened back in 2005, but it seems more certain that it will happen this time around.

Before I get to that, though, it should be kept in mind that this nomination will be unusual in at least two important respects. First, it is only happening because the Republicans blocked any consideration of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia. That move was unprecedented and has invited payback in kind. The second reason is that this nomination will be made hastily without the normal consultation and (tacit) approval of the Senate minority’s leadership. It’s not unusual for the minority to make a big fuss about opposing a Supreme Court nominee, but they usually have the ability to veto really radical appointments by threatening to filibuster them. In the end, for example, John Roberts was seen as acceptable by Democratic leaders even though they didn’t want him on the Court. Alito was a much closer call, which is also why he’s the best precedent for what we’re about to see. In the case of Bork, the Democrats’ warnings were ignored, but they were able to defeat him outright without resorting to procedural tactics.

As for the Republicans, they also signaled (quietly) that Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would be acceptable to them. The result has been that both parties have been able to put (respectively) liberal and conservative Justices on the Court, but they’ve had to restrain themselves somewhat in their choices. Again, Alito pushed the envelope in this respect further than it had been pushed before.

In this case, no real effort has been made to prevent a filibuster, which is the same as inviting one. That can only mean that the administration’s expectation is that the Senate will invoke the nuclear option and do away with the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.

This will, of course, cause a massive uproar and it will drown out all the things people are talking about today, from the Muslim immigration ban to putting Steve Bannon on the National Security Council to the Russian question to the wall on the Mexican border to the threat of war over Taiwan with China to Trump’s inability to discern the difference between reality and fantasy.

Maybe that’s half the point, especially because conservatives are so motivated over this Supreme Court appointment that they’ll set aside everything else to fight for it.

I don’t have any great advice for how to prevent people from getting distracted other than to point out that people are at risk of getting distracted.

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