History Lesson
September 6, 2018

White House officials dishing anonymously to journalists, including specifically to Bob Woodward, is nothing new in Washington. All presidents have had to deal with leaks and insider sniping, though most have fared better than what President Trump apparently calls his den of "snakes."

"We had people who left the Bush administration and turned on us immediately," Eric Edelman, an undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, tells Politico, specifically mentioning former Press Secretary Scott McClellan. "But to have people inside the administration doing this while they're there, no." Former President Barack Obama, on the other hand, did have a mole of sorts, using the then-new medium of Twitter, as Politico explains:

In 2013 Obama administration officials hunted for a self-identified but unnamed official who tweeted internal gossip and biting commentary under the handle of @NatSecWonk, lambasting figures from Obama adviser Ben Rhodes to Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea. An elaborate analysis of the tweets focused suspicion on a midlevel National Security Council nuclear arms expert named Jofi Joseph, who was caught after he tweeted information planted in a sting operation. Joseph confessed and was fired. He is now a tax consultant. [Politico]

Joseph did not get a fat book deal, but if you're curious about his @NatSecWonk body of work, Marc Ambinder wrote about it in The Week. Peter Weber

June 6, 2018

President Trump's rationale for piling tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU last week was certainly controversial. Turns out it's also historically questionable.

Trump cited "national security" when he imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tax on aluminum Friday. In a call on May 25, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Trump to explain the justification.

"Didn't you guys burn down the White House?" Trump replied, sources told CNN.

Middle school history graduates may recognize that it was actually Britain that committed that particular offense, and during the War of 1812. Of course, Canada was a British colony back then, and troops torched the White House in retaliation for an American attack in Ontario. So Trump could've been making an accurate joke — but CNN's source says it probably wasn't taken as one. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 31, 2017

On Monday evening, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed Justice Department lawyers that as long as she headed the DOJ, its lawyers "will not present arguments in defense of the executive order" President Trump issued on immigration from seven Muslim nations because she's not "convinced that the executive order is lawful." President Trump promptly fired her, saying Yates "has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order."

Yates had been planning to leave the department a few days after the Senate confirmed Trump's nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and she reportedly knew her letter could lead to her early termination. But sometimes "the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper." That last quote is from Jeff Sessions — whose protégés reportedly wrote Trump's executive order — talking to Yates at her deputy attorney general Senate confirmation hearing in March 2015. "If the views a president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or deputy attorney general say no?" Sessions asked. "Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution," Yates replied.

Sessions went on to compare the president to a business executive. "Sometimes, the lawyers have to tell the CEOs, Mr. CEO, don't do that, we'll get us sued," he said. "It's going to be in violation of the law. You'll regret it. Please. No matter how headstrong they might be, do you feel like that's the duty of the attorney general's office?" Yates said yes.

Before wrapping up, Sessions strolled down memory lane: "I remember John Ashcroft, attorney general for Bush, he's been celebrated, when he was in the hospital, they tried to get him to sign a document that dealt with terrorism that he thought went too far, he refused to do so. So, I hope that you feel free to say no, in the character of John Ashcroft and others who said no to President Nixon on certain issues." Ashcroft was consulted in the hospital, Sessions did not mention, because Bush was first turned down by the acting attorney general, James Comey, who is now head of the FBI. You can watch the entire Sessions-Yates exchange at C-SPAN. Peter Weber

January 19, 2017

Senate Republicans are pressing Democrats to confirm at least seven of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees on Friday, in the hours after Trump is sworn in, while Democrats say they are probably open to confirming a handful, including Trump's picks for defense (former Gen. James Mattis), homeland security (former Gen. John Kelly), and CIA director (Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas). With 48 votes, Democrats can't stop any nominations, but if they don't agree to a voice vote, they can delay the confirmations.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), echoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), argued that seven nominees is only fair. "In 2009 when President Obama was sworn into office, there were seven Cabinet members confirmed on his first day in office — seven," he said. "That's a demonstration of the good faith and the civility that ordinarily extends in the peaceful transition of power." That's also not the whole story.

First, the Senate only confirmed six Obama nominees on Inauguration Day 2009 — the secretaries of agriculture, education, energy, homeland security, interior, and veterans affairs. The seventh, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was already in office, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration. Democrats also had a much larger 58-41 majority.

The biggest difference, though, is that Obama's nominees had been vetted — and in fact, three of his nominees withdrew their names before a vote: commerce secretary nominees Gov. Bill Richardson (who said a federal pay-to-play inquiry would cause an "untenable delay" in his confirmation) and Sen. Judd Gregg (a Republican who decided under partisan pressure that he had "irresolvable" ideological differences with Obama), and HHS secretary pick Tom Daschle (a former Senate majority leader who admitted failing to pay $128,000 in taxes on unreported income and use of a chauffeured car).

On Wednesday, CNN's Jake Tapper, who covered the Daschle story, explained how the Obama and Trump nominations are different. "The Senate committee was vetting Tom Daschle, they had issues and questions," he said. "I don't see that same sort of diligence going on in the committees. They seem to be rushing through a lot of these nominations."

Historically, "Cabinet nominations tend only to fail when dragged down by scandal or impropriety," not "policy disagreement or extreme political views," says Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight. "Only a scandal big enough to force the famously unapologetic Trump to reverse himself and withdraw a nomination is likely to bring down any of his appointees." Peter Weber

November 28, 2016

Green Party nominee Jill Stein is trying to reverse the presidential election result through recounts in three Rust Belt states, and there's a push to have the Electoral College just pick Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, despite Trump winning more electoral votes, but Keith Olbermann says there's an easier way to strip Trump of power: "The 25th Amendment, Section Four." The Constitution was surprisingly vague on what happens if a president dies or is incapacitated in office, he explained in his GQ show The Resistance, laying out the history of the amendment, enacted in 1967, and running down its three better-known clauses. "And then there is Section Four," Olbermann said, "written nearly 52 years ago, more with Woodrow Wilson in mind, and yet it might as well have been named for Donald John Trump."

This section allows for "instant impeachment," Olbermann said, with no hearings or doctors or trial. In about three weeks, with just two letters from the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet declaring the president unable to discharge his duties, a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate "results in the president remaining in office with the title but without the power," he said. "So it's a crazy-man clause, right? In the case of Trump, it presumes he behaves as president as he is behaving as president-elect."

"For my money, he's nuts — couldn't pass a sanity test, open book," Olbermann said. "But of course, Section Four of the 25th Amendment here does not say 'nuts' — or impaired, or erratic or unbalanced or unhealthy or bipolar or narcissist or sociopath or psychopath. It only says 'that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,'" a description that Olbermann found "kind of vague." Keith Olbermann sees you shaking your head. "Even if you loathe or fear Trump, you must look at this and say: 'This can't happen in a democracy, the people voted for him. You can't just un-president him,'" he said. "The hell you can't!" And he had another brief history lesson, this time about British prime ministers, to make that case. Watch below. Peter Weber

September 13, 2016

If the 2016 election has given you an unnerving sense of 1990s déjà vu, this is going to make it worse. On Tuesday, with Hillary Clinton sidelined with pneumonia and Republicans demanding her health records, Bill Clinton is flying out to Los Angeles to headline some fundraisers for his wife's presidential campaign. Two decades ago — on Sept. 12, 1996 — President Bill Clinton was on a 24-hour fundraising trip through California for his own re-election bid, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, "White House officials scrambled to deal with questions about why they will not release the president's full medical records." The article, headlined "Questions on Health Records Dog Clinton" and unearthed on Monday by L.A. Times reporter Matt Pearce, gets even eerier:

At campaign stops over the last several weeks, Republican officials have repeatedly raised the issue of Clinton's health — often hinting without substantiation that Clinton suffers from some embarrassing medical condition.... The medical records question has dogged Clinton since the 1992 campaign. Then, as now, Clinton has authorized the release of only partial information about his medical condition. White House spokesmen and his physician have issued statements that he enjoys overall good health but have not provided detailed data from his annual medical exams. [L.A. Times]

Despite the similarities, there are notable differences, too. Bill Clinton, for example, was 50 years old and his opponent, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), was 73. Hillary Clinton is now 68, and her opponent, 70-year-old Donald Trump, has not "been more forthcoming, distributing results of a battery of medical tests and making his personal physician available for interviews," as the L.A. Times says of Dole. In fact, Trump has so far provided less medical information than Hillary Clinton. To learn what else has changed and what hasn't in 20 years — Bill Clinton's 1996 fundraiser featured Tom Hanks, Stephen Spielberg, and Barbra Streisand, for example — read more at the Los Angeles Times. Peter Weber

August 24, 2016

Washington, D.C., may be a simmering stew of political dysfunction now, but 202 years ago, President James Madison couldn't even round up enough men to fend of a few thousand British troops and save the capital from destruction. On Aug. 24, 1814, British Rear Admiral George Cockburn marched a group of some 4,500 troops on Washington; they easily defeated a larger group of U.S. militiamen and Army regulars in Bladensburg, Maryland, and entered the capital at sunset.

The British torched the White House — after first consuming President Madison's food and wine — and the Capitol, which housed both chambers of Congress, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. The next day, Cockburn's men burned down the Treasury building and State, War, and Navy Department headquarters. You can read some of the embarrassing details in Jesse Greenspan's account at The History Channel, including how Secretary of State James Monroe's reconnaissance expedition forgot a spyglass and how Madison, carrying a borrowed pistol, almost accidentally rode into British lines.

But before you get too down on Madison's Washington, know that Aug. 24 is not a terribly lucky date, as The Associated Press reminds us in the video below. Mt. Vesuvius buried Pompeii, Hurricane Andrew pummeled Florida, Pluto was demoted, and Pete Rose was banned from baseball. Peter Weber

August 11, 2016

In May, when Donald Trump was facing scrutiny over promised donations to veterans groups, Sean Hannity's website posted a heartwarming story of how Trump went out of his way to help veterans back in 1991. The article is based on the memories of a Marine reservist, Cpl. Ryan Stickney, who said that Trump sent his own private jet to ferry Stickney and 200 other stranded Marines back home, adding: "I have not seen a Clinton or Sanders plane, or anything else for that matter, sent to support the troops." "The Trump campaign has confirmed to Hannity.com that Mr. Trump did indeed send his plane to make two trips from North Carolina to Miami, Florida, to transport over 200 Gulf War Marines back home," the article says.

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler looked into the story at the request of a reader, and on Thursday he rendered his verdict: "Sean Hannity needs to correct this article, if not pull it down. The Trump campaign earns Four Pinocchios for confirming a story that is easily debunked." The airplane, captured on photo by Cpl. Stickney, was not Trump's private jet but clearly part of the Trump Shuttle fleet, under contract with the Defense Department to transport troops in 1991. Furthermore, Trump had lost control of the airline in 1991 for failing to make loan payments, and the Trump Shuttle aircraft were flying for the Pentagon because, Kessler said, Trump "made a bad deal," agreeing to buy too many planes for his airline.

You can read more about Trump's disastrous foray into the airline industry — a business he knew nothing about — from The Daily Beast's Barbara Peterson, but it's more fun to watch this amazing video of Trump launching the Trump Shuttle in 1989, to champagne and a classy string quartet. "Truthfully it was great for the Trump ego," a young Trump says about owning an airline, when asked by PIX11's Barry Cunningham. On board the inaugural Trump Shuttle from New York to Washington, Cunningham asked Trump if the flight was symbolically indicative of a jump into politics. "No, it's not at all," Trump says. "I think that hopefully somebody is going to be able to take advantage of Japan instead of always being taken advantage of. I just enjoy what I'm doing."

If Trump had jumped into the 1992 race for president, and defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush — or replaced third-party fellow billionaire Ross Perot — he would have run against Bill Clinton. Instead, in 1992, Trump was unloading Trump Shuttle at a steep loss. Peter Weber

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