Monday, November 12, 2018

Where Is Donald? Veterans Day Edition

Today, Veterans Day 2018, the President of the United States stayed in the White House. He did not go to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath. He did nothing to commemorate Veterans Day. The excuse was a forecast of rain. This makes no sense.

Two days ago, in France, Trump cancelled a trip to the Aisne Marne American military cemetery near Bellau Wood, about 50 miles outside Paris, with the excuse that Marine One has trouble flying in the rain. That's not a great excuse, but it's just barely plausible enough to get away with. And Trump took immediate blowback for skipping that ceremony. But Arlington is two miles from the White House, and it wasn't even raining. Rain was forecast for later. This is political malpractice, at best. Every President commemorates Veterans Day. It's easy. It costs you nothing. It looks awful if you skip it, let alone with combat troops in the field. And it's the right thing to do. (This is especially weird when Trump makes such a point of glorifying, or even fetishizing, the military.)

I don't believe this was about the rain.

The White House press corps was notified at 10 am that the President would have no more public events or movements for the day. So Trump's day ended early. Why?

Theory #1: Trump has taken ill. Trump is 72 years old. He eats poorly. His general health is probably not great. And he just flew back from Europe.

There's a long American tradition of not telling the public the full truth about the sitting President's health. Routine health problems get concealed, and sometimes major health problems that the public really might want to know about do, too. American presidents are always navigating middle or advanced age in the midst of an incredibly stressful job which takes a real physical toll on them. It's considered better for the country if we don't hear about every health setback.

So one explanation is that the septuagenarian President is feeling too physically exhausted after returning from Paris to have any public events and needs the day off the recuperate. That's not great, because it suggests the President has even less energy or stamina than I feared, but it's less consequential than the other possible theories.

Trump did tweet four times after 10 am (from 11:30 to a little before 2:30), but that's not strenuous. Maybe he could do that while taking a sick day.

Theory #2: Dealing with a Crisis. When a president of the United States suddenly and unexpectedly clears out the daily schedule, it sometimes means a crisis has arisen and the president can't spare time for anything else. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, was sent out to tell the press that all events had been canceled because President Kennedy had a cold. Most recent presidents would still have found an hour to get to Arlington, lay a Veteran's Day wreath, and motorcade back, but it all depends on how serious Trump perceives the (hypothetical) emergency to be.

He could be holed up with his advisers trying to cope with a crisis of some description: maybe a military or other national-security crisis, maybe a political crisis, and maybe a legal crisis. All are possibilities for this Administration right now.

If there were suddenly some national-security emergency, the public wouldn't necessarily know about it right away. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which was kept secret for days, is an obvious example. So was the terrorist threat against LAX back in the Clinton Administration, which had Bill Clinton demanding status updates every hour but which the public didn't hear about until the plot was disrupted. So it could be that Trump has been in the Situation Room all day, getting briefed by generals.

But Trump is also facing a number of political and legal challenges, some of which overlap. His party has just lost the House, meaning subpoenas and investigations by Democrats. His appointment of Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General may not take, with even some conservatives calling it unconstitutional, so the Whitaker Gambit to shut down Special Counsel Muller's investigation is looking less plausible.

And there is the Mueller investigation itself, and related investigations, which may be progressing in ways that aren't yet public. There are a number of rumors about imminent indictments, so Trump may feel the investigation getting uncomfortably close.

What was bothering another president of the United States would be a mystery, but Trump kept tweeting throughout the day, so we have a sense of what was foremost on his mind. It wasn't national security.

He begins his online day at 8 am with three tweets basically threatening to pull the US out of its military alliances, which is a hell of a way to start Veterans Day but not something you do when you're trying to deal with a pressing security problem. At 8:44 he demands an end to vote-counting in the Florida elections, basically calling vote-counting fraudulent. At 10 am the press is told his schedule for the day is over.

At 11:34 he tweets that the stock market will somehow tank if the House Democrats investigate him:

At 12:31 he tweets good wishes to the firefighters and first responders fighting the California fires, an attempt to make up for some unhelpful things he said about those fires over the last week. At 2:13 he tweets an attack on Comcast, the parent company of NBC. At 2:21 he tweets that Saudi Arabia and OPEC should not cut oil production (after Saudi Arabia announced that it would cut oil production) and that oil prices should be lower. That tweet seems especially useless, but they all read like reactions to whatever news Trump found unwelcome.

Overall, Trump seems upset and a little besieged: still upset enough by his party's election losses to try intervening in the Florida vote-count, anxious that about a stock-market downturn (as evidenced by both the stock-market tweet and the OPEC tweet), and angry at the media. The Comcast tweet may suggest that he's particularly upset at NBC or MSNBC at the moment. I read a president who's fearful about a number of developments. But my money is on the "Presidential Harassment" tweet revealing the core anxiety: the President is about to be under a lot more investigative scrutiny and he experiences that as a real threat.

Theory #3: The President Is Freaking Out

But the President may not be holding strategy meetings on his political and legal woes. He may just be melting down. Maybe he's too upset and overwrought to go out to Arlington, even briefly, and canceled his daily schedule in a giant tantrum. Or maybe his handlers are scared of what he'd say today if he were in front of the press for even a minute. He's been noticeably unraveling since the day after the election. There's a real possibility that he hasn't gotten better, but worse. He may be cracking under the political and legal strain.

I don't know what's going on. But I feel like we may eventually find out. Mark your calendars: Monday, November 12, when things got so bad that Trump couldn't celebrate Veterans Day.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.