Since he was elected the 45th president of the United States (barring his preemptive impeachment ... more on this later), Donald Trump has been a very, very busy man. Far too busy to have an open public press conference -- a tradition that past presidents-elect have typically managed to uphold. (Here's President Obama holding a news conference three days after his election in 2008, which feels like about 25 years ago.)
He does have time for journalists, though. More than a dozen supplicants, from NBC's Lester Holt (whom Trump once falsely branded a Democrat) to ABC's Jim Muir to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, along with their bosses, made the pilgrimage to Trump Tower to get a sneak peak inside the mind of Trump. But only as long as it was off the record.
Given the lack of open access to the U.S. press, it shouldn't be a shock that the real news about the Trump transition is coming from obscure foreign media outlets. It was only through the free press of India that Americans -- well, some Americans, anyway -- learned that Trump had taken time out to meet with South Asian businessmen developing a Trump-branded property near Mumbai. Today, it emerged that a well-known and well-sourced Argentinian journalist, Jorge Lanata, has reported that Trump -- in a congratulatory call from Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri -- asked the South American leader to speed up approval of a Trump project in Buenos Aries.
That sounds like an impeachable offense -- Trump using the clout of the presidency to advance his widespread business interests. Spokespeople for both Trump and Macri are now denying this conversation ever happened. They may be right. But in this unprecedented pre-presidential moment, when the incoming POTUS has blurred the lines between politics and personal profit, anything seems possible, and not in a good way. (Prediction: Merriam-Webster will declare "emoluments" the Word of the Year for 2016.) In this space last week, we looked at the growing number of ways (hiring a white-nationalist fave as your chief strategist, for example) that Trump's looming presidency is #NotNormal.
That was just the start. Week 2 of the Trump transition has turned out to be a lot more #NotNormal than Week 1. There are at least three things are going on right now that shatter traditional convention.
1. The "emoluments" thing -- the massive conflicts of interest involving the president-elect, his family, and the question of whether the new administration is capable of walling off Trump's business interests from his presidential actions. In addition to the disturbing appearances of Trump's Indian and Argentinian dealings, the Trump family is also pitching his new and currently mostly empty Washington, D.C., hotel (whose landlord, by the way, is the federal government) as the place to stay for foreign diplomats whose job, in part, will be to curry favor with the new administration. When Trump held his first high-level foreign meeting, with the Japanese prime minister, his daughter Ivanka -- who may be running Trump's myriad business interests -- sat in on the session, an unprecedented breach of regular protocol.
There's been no real effort to establish a blind trust or any of the other normal barriers between the new president's decisions and his money. Nor did Trump release his income taxes, which might have offered the public a road map for his potential conflicts and how to avoid them.This is #NotNormal.
2. Fraud allegations. On Friday, Trump -- who'd vowed to fight lawsuits involving as many 7,000 former student who claim the president-elect's 2000s business venture Trump University was nothing more than a common flim-flam -- agreed to pay $25 million to make the first wave of legal claims go away. Trump, as is standard in such settlements, did not concede any wrongdoing on his part. But the evidence still suggests otherwise. As reported by Salon: "Starting in 2007, Trump University began providing live seminars that participants described as akin to being inside a 'sales funnel' whereby they were lectured by speakers who the plaintiffs recalled as having little or no real estate experience, despite being promoted as 'amazing instructors' who had been 'handpicked' by Trump himself." Students who could max out their credit card received a Glengarry Glen Ross-worthy pressure pitch to buy a $35,000 Gold Elite membership.
This was a common grift, pure and simple. And it was led by a future president of the United States. This weekend, I looked up to see if any of the other 44 U.S. presidencies began with the future commander-in-chief doling out $25 million to citizens accusing him of fraud ... but I came up dry. Maybe that's because this is #NotNormal.
3. Norm-busting appointments. For all the hype swirling around possible Trump administration hires, the president-elect has only actually hired five people. Five white men, for what that's worth. At least three and arguably four out of the five have records that a constipated newspaper might call "racially charged." But it's worse than that. These men actually have abysmal records of making untrue, blanket statements about entire races, religions, or other groups -- and then backing up their biases with horrific policy ideas.
We laid out the case against Bannon -- whose white-nationalist allies had a "Hail" of a good time in D.C. this weekend -- last week. Then Trump named retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn -- who, after getting fired from his post, tweeted that fear of Muslims is "rational" and retweeting a charge that Hillary Clinton was a child rapist, gave a paid speech in Moscow and sat next to Vladimir Putin, and was described by Colin Powell as "abusive" and "right-wing nutty" -- as the nation's national security chief. I'm sure our Muslim-led allies will love this. Well, OK, Putin will love this.
Trump's would-be attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was nixed by a GOP-led Senate for a federal judgeship in 1986 because of racially charged remarks ... which didn't stop the people of Alabama from electing him to the Senate. Those who says Sessions' problems are all in the distant past should check out what he thinks of Dominicans, or how he fought to keep Alabama's schools separate-and-unequal. Then. ponder the dismal prospects of a man who's spent a lifetime opposing civil rights now tasked with enforcing those same civil rights laws won by Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, and so many other heroes.
There is nothing normal about any of this.
And as you can imagine, America's airwaves crackled and its newspaper front pages were crammed with controversy over Trump's conflicts, his business practices, the unusually divisive nature of his appointments ... ha, who am I kidding? The only Trump-related news that made a dent this weekend was the Hamilton affair, when the Broadway actor who played one dangerous vice president, Aaron Burr, fired what many saw as a verbal shot at the incoming vice president, Mike Pence, after Pence attended the hit musical. The speech read by actor Brandon Victor Dixon on behalf of the Hamilton cast was pointed but respectful, noting that many diverse Americans are "alarmed" by what Trump has displayed so far and hope that he'll somehow uphold basic human rights. The president-elect didn't see it that way, tweeting in the early morning Saturday that the cast should "Apologize!" -- and thus dominating the news cycle for the next 48 hours.
No one should have expected anything different from the media. Why educate readers about "the emolument clause" when the Hamilton story had it all -- high theater, literally, and a simmering row between a rainbow coalition of coastal elites (and their beloved smash-hit play) versus a heartland vice president-elect ... and his hot-headed boss. Suddenly, Trump's remarkable fraud settlement and his business conflicts were a Page 17 story. Especially when he piled on by tweeting the next morning about how unfunny Saturday Night Live has become when several skits lampooned him or his supporters.
Week 2 told us everything we need to know about the looming Trump presidency -- and the news is not good. It's not just that we have an incoming POTUS who's successfully blocking access to journalists who question authority and instead making his own headlines at 5:22 a.m. with his ever-moving thumbs and his iPhone. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Trump has already moved in as America's distractor-in-chief, tweeting something outrageous when the non-fake news gets too close. Media watchers found more mentions of Hamilton on cable TV this weekend than the Trump University fraud case or Trump's business conflicts combined.
And I think this hints at the deeper problem. All this talk about "Aaron Burr" and Mike Pence -- maybe the vice president we should have been thinking about this weekend was Spiro Agnew. It was Agnew, after all -- with help from his boss Richard Nixon and all the president's men -- who launched the great culture war on America's media, college professors, "pointy-headed intellectuals" or Hollywood actors, all to keep the so-called "silent majority" agitated and to distract folks from faraway disasters in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Now comes Trump as a nuclear-powered Agnew, with a presidential seal and an 140-character warhead to bypass the hated media altogether, and to deflect attention from both practices and policies that threaten to light the American Experiment on fire. What was on display this weekend was the diabolical game plan for the next four years and two months -- find new and headline-making ways to demonize the practitioners of a free press and free expression in the United States, building on the fury against the messengers that Trump whipped up in 17 months on the campaign trail. Trump and Sessions will also declare war on so-called "sanctuary cities" such as Philadelphia, an issue that will thrill Trump's suburban and rural bases, by punishing urban dwellers.
These things, judged on their own, are horrible -- a round-the-clock assault of bullying against the First Amendment, open dialogue and huge swaths of America by the nation's supposed leader. But it serves an even worse purpose -- distracting us all to death while the Jeff Sessionses, the Steve Bannons and the Michael Flynns of his administration work to gut voting rights, conduct mass deportations on a scale dwarfing the Japanese-American internment of World War II, play footsie with white supremacists and criss-cross America with dirty oil pipelines. This is Trump's ultimate game -- even if he doesn't realize it as he drowns himself, and the American people, in his own toxic narcissism.
Meanwhile, just 13 days since Trump's election, things are happening across America that are simply horrific and heartbreaking on an unthinkable scale -- from all the hate crimes, to the white nationalists celebrating a stone's throw from the White House, to a remarkable segment on CNN this afternoon devoted to a claim from that same meeting that Jews "are not people." Tonight, Trump's transition team issued a mealy-mouth statement which said nothing except that the president-elect "has continued to denounce racism of any kind." Behind closed doors in Trump Tower, the brutal business of transitioning America into someplace that nobody recognizes continued apace.