A view of the restraint of President Trump

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President Trump has held firm to his position of unilaterally holding the federal government hostage for his border wall, much to the delight of his base.

The presidency of tabloid star, game show host, and brand entrepreneur Donald J. Trump has been a rowdy one. Currently, the federal government of the United States is, like so many of Trump’s former ventures, shut down. As Trump threatens to declare a national emergency and circumvent Congress in order to build his promised southern border wall, commentators are speculating just how far Trump will go to undermine American institutions and empower himself.

Throughout his many decades of public life, Trump has been openly petty, vulgar, racist, conspiratorial, and narcissistic. The presidency hasn’t matured him an iota. As president, he’s continued to lie, flirt with dictators, enrich himself and his family, and show no compunction about stripping away benefits and even disaster relief from vulnerable people. Given how brazenly he’s gotten away with it all, though, it’s almost a marvel that he hasn’t gone even further.

According to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report on national emergency powers, in a state of national emergency, “the President may seize property, organize and control the means of production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law, seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United States citizens.”

Granting Trump national emergency powers, when the only emergency on the southern border is the human rights abuses of his own administration, is as over-the-top as it gets. No matter how far Trump turns the dial, though, pundits and politicians follow along and treat his proposals seriously. Trump’s advisers and lawyers argue on national TV that, for instance, the president can pardon himself. Scholars are then invited on TV to debate the claim, and the end result is a collective, “Who knows?”

We are in uncharted waters with Trump. Nobody really seems to know the limits of his power. Regardless of what the Constitution, legal scholars, politicians, or anyone in the media says, Trump’s power is only limited by human beings who can exercise institutional authority. America has never contended with a president who demonstrates such blatant contempt for the rule of law, and it’s not at all clear that the necessary safety mechanisms to keep him from becoming a dictator are in place.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that the GOP is a political weapon for Trump to use as he sees fit.

Perhaps no body in the country has more institutional leverage over President Trump than the Senate. But Republicans still hold a majority there, and they are standing firm with Trump on the shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked two bills to reopen government from coming to a vote in the Senate. Trump would veto the bill, but if Republicans cared about reopening government, they could override him. McConnell has said overriding Trump’s veto is not an option under consideration.

Even as the shutdown takes its toll, Trump’s approval among Republicans remains as high as 88 percent. Republicans can’t afford to cross Trump and alienate a base that so enthusiastically supports him. Likewise Trump must keep the blessing of far-right media, from FOX News to Breitbart. These are some of the most important opinion makers in the Republican base, and they have held Trump to a firm position on immigration. Ann Coulter’s scathing December op-ed was apparently a significant factor in Trump’s decision to shut down the government in the first place.

For that base, Trump could never go too far. They enthusiastically support his most extreme and abusive ideas: the Muslim ban, the ban on transgender military service, family separation and child detention, prosecution of journalists, and more. From posts in comment sections all the way up to Sean Hannity, the pressure is on Trump to hold the government hostage and circumvent traditional legislative processes in order to enact the most radical and fascistic items on his agenda.

Viewed that way, it’s surprising Trump hasn’t declared a national emergency and further empowered himself. It could solve all his problems. He could end the myriad investigations into his shady business and political career, he could silence his critics with force, and he could ram through perhaps the most radically far-right agenda in history. If he tried to assume dictatorial powers, his base, parts of which already refer to him as “God-Emperor,” would love it.

Right now, the only real opposition to Trump is a slim Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a corporate media that frequently bends over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt. There are other, less visible institutional pressures to prevent more overt authoritarianism, but it’s not clear they could hold out against a full-blown coup.

Trump certainly isn’t held back from dictatorial ambitions by any personal principles. His presidency has been marked by open admiration for “strong” authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. When Xi Jinping made himself the president-for-life of China, Trump liked it and joked, “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” As a candidate, Trump bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose any supporters. His presidency has largely born out that claim, and it’s only a small step away from, for instance, assassinating political enemies with drones.

Never in his adult life has Trump faced real accountability. He’s been sued or fined thousands of times; both his university and charity were shuttered after being exposed as scams; and he’s been the subject of numerous credible sexual assault claims. None of it’s brought him down. Just as in his business career, his acts of fraud and deceit have had no serious political ramifications.

Given how recklessly Trump has already gotten away with so much, and that he has the unwavering support of the GOP and 24-hour propaganda platforms, it’s hard to guess what’s stopping him from even bolder power moves. If the calculation ever changes for Trump and he decides to grab for more, recent history suggests he will get away with it. He has already thrown the door wide open for far-right policies and more explicitly bigoted authoritarianism. It’s up to the American people to focus on closing it before Trump or anyone else can walk through.

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The real reason Trump wants a border wall

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Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office for the first time as president on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, telling Americans there is a national security crisis on our southern border that only his wall – or fence, or barrier – can protect us from. The US federal government has been shut down for three weeks as Trump refuses to reopen it without funding for his project. Democrats have largely held firm, issuing a rebuke of Trump’s arguments and refusing to give him what he wants.

In his address, the president described the southern border as a warzone under constant attack by enemies of America. Trump connected America’s heroin epidemic with border crossings and ran down a short, cherry-picked list of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants to imply that none of them can be trusted. He blamed illegal immigration for job loss and stagnating wages. Continue reading

Positives of the Trump presidency

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President Trump’s unabashed, unapologetic awfulness could have a few inadvertent positive consequences for American politics.

Every day brings new revelations about the extent of President Donald Trump’s crookedness, the corruption of his administration, and the damage he’s doing to our political system, foreign relations and the environment. The deluge of negative coverage has caused Trump and his supporters to accuse the media of a conspiracy against the president, but the truth is far simpler than that: Trump truly is that awful. In fact, in most ways, he’s even worse than the mainstream media portrays.

Still, it’s worth entertaining some potential positives that could emerge out of Trump’s presidency. None of them justify his presidency but, mostly indirectly and by accident, there are ways in which Trump’s complete lack of convention could lead to a positive jolt to the system. Most of these fall under one of three categories: blundering into a decent foreign policy move, breaking our staid expectations of what a politician should be, and accidental admission of the truth. Continue reading

Stan Lee, major architect of American pop culture, dies at 95

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“Most people retire so they can go do what they want. I’m already doing what I want. I like to write. I like to work with creative people. If I retired, I’d be giving up my fun.” – Stan Lee

Stan Lee was 95 years old, pushing 96, when he passed away on November 12. His wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, died last year. After her death, reports emerged about Lee’s own health issues and troubled personal life, including elder abuse and shady estate finagling. The writing was on the wall: the living legend’s time was coming.

Everyone whose life he touched – and they must number in the hundreds of millions – is affected. By now, the story is well-known. Lee, the editor of Timely Comics – later Atlas, and eventually Marvel – was frustrated with his industry and contemplating a career change. On his way out the door, and with two of the most imaginative artistic storytellers in the field, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in his employ, Lee transformed a company known primarily for cheap genre comics into the leading innovator in superhero literature. Continue reading

With Saudi defense, Trump’s love of tyrants reaches dismal new low

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Trump stands with the infamous orb in Saudi Arabia on his first trip overseas as president in 2017.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive, corrupt, and militaristic countries on earth. It is also a major ally of the United States, and current US President Donald Trump is a particularly big fan. Now that the Saudi government is believed to have murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, likely on orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pressure is mounting on Trump to stand up for journalists and free speech. Instead, he’s standing up for Saudi Arabia. Continue reading

Brett Kavanaugh’s personal record is bad – but so is his judicial record

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Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before Congress.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on President Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, for Friday, September 28 at 9 a.m. Republicans are anxious to hold the vote on Kavanaugh because each day seems to bring new allegations and scrutiny against the 53-year-old, whose appointment would be for life. Over the last two weeks, three women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault at the hands of Kavanaugh in high school and college. Continue reading

A compendium of Donald Trump’s criminality

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Left to right: Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, plead guilty to eight counts; Trump; and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, who was convicted of eight more charges.

Within minutes of one another, two former high-level associates of President Donald Trump were found guilty of felonies last week. Paul Manafort, the chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign throughout the pivotal summer of 2016, was convicted on eight charges, including tax fraud and bank fraud. Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney, pleaded guilty to eight charges, including tax evasion and making an excessive campaign contribution at the request of a candidate – the hush money paid to one of Trump’s mistresses.

Five of Trump’s former close associates have already been indicted in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Manafort and Cohen join Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Adviser; George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign; and campaign aid Rick Gates. Dozens of others have also been indicted. The president has thus far managed to stay just beyond reach, but the indictments and convictions underscore Trump’s lifelong adjacency to criminal activity. Continue reading

Donald Trump’s pipeline to Putin

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Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake hands at a summit in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.

After his submissive appearance alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki last month, President Donald Trump faced some of the most severe and unanimous criticism of his chaotic political career. Members of Trump’s own party called the president “treasonous” and “disgraceful” while commentators speculated that Putin must have serious kompromat on Trump to make him behave so obsequiously. As the media and the FBI connect the dots of Putin and Trump’s relationship, their most obvious common interest in oil goes largely undiscussed. Continue reading

Republicans plead for civility

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Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant, an incident that became a flashpoint in the culture war.

For three years, Donald Trump has dominated America’s cultural conversation. In that time, he has accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers over the border, mocked a disabled reporter’s handicap, encouraged his crowds to physically assault protesters, and labeled journalists the “enemy of the people.” As President, he has done all he can to shred America’s life-saving social safety net, banned Muslims from entering America, and held migrant children hostage in cages. Now, Trump and his enablers are asking for one thing: civility. Continue reading

Trump Administration dehumanizes victims to justify border atrocities

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After being separated from their parents at the border, the children of migrants are held in chain-link pens at military bases and prisons around the southern border.

By far the biggest story in national headlines this week was the Trump Administration’s policy of splitting up families crossing the southern border without authorization. Following a zero-tolerance policy enacted in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, detained parents have been sent to one facility and their children have been sent to another. Photos and videos of those children – confused, crying, and locked in cages – drew intense domestic and international condemnation. United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said, “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” Continue reading