How Might Kavanaugh Change the Supreme Court?

Kennedy Gorsuch & Kavanaugh (2)Besides death and taxes, the other surety since the Robert Bork nomination fight is that Supreme Court nominees are unlikely to reveal very much in answering U.S. Senators’ questions during the confirmation process. Insisting that they can’t comment on matters they might have to rule on has become the stock reply. So besides their life stories, their allies, and the various prior cases they’ve ruled on, how else can judicial candidates be evaluated for their likely voting records?

One intriguing possibility is to look at judges’ emotional tendencies. After all, a study by Sam Gosling at the University of Texas concluded that liberals tend to be more emotionally positive and extroverted than more negative and detached conservatives. In my facial coding of various high-court justices, past, present, and perhaps future (Brett Kavanaugh), what emerged?

The chart takes into account two measures: appeal (how positive or negative the justices’ emoting is based on taking into account the “flavor” of smiles, scowls and other negative emoting) and the intensity or strength of their emoting. Somebody given to joyful smiles will emerge as more positive and intense than somebody mostly prone to tepid smiles; and somebody whose scowls aren’t softened by instances of mildly amused smiles will emerge as more negative and intense.

071018-02 Supreme Court Cartesian

What do the facial coding results show? In general, Gosling’s theory has merit but isn’t a slam dunk. For the Supreme Court as constituted before Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, The New York Times reported the following share of votes that were liberal:

  • Ruth Ginsburg (84%)
  • Elena Kagan (83%)
  • Stephen Breyer (81%)
  • Sonia Sotomayor (81%)
  • John Roberts (49%)
  • Anthony Kennedy (46%)
  • Neil Gorsuch (44%)
  • Clarence Thomas (22%)
  • Samuel Alito (16%)

Of the four, current Supreme Court justices with a positive appeal result, their liberal voting records mostly match up well: Sotomayor (81%), Kagan (83%), Roberts (49%) and Ginsberg (84%). In other words, three out of four times, Gosling’s theory seems to have some merit—even if Ginsberg is barely upbeat. Meanwhile, the inverse is true for the conservatives: in three of four cases, those justices land in negative appeal territory. Only Breyer (81%) has a liberal voting record to go along with a slightly negative emotional tilt. Add to the track record the conservative-turned-often-moderate Sandra O’Connor (positive emoting) and the rock-ribbed conservative Antonin Scalia (negative emoting) and Gosling’s theory looks to be on even firmer though not rock-solid ground.

So . . . what to expect of Kavanaugh if confirmed? These results suggest that he might prove to be the less reliably conservative vote that some right-wing Republicans fear. Emotionally, he might be a little less conservative than Gorsuch, who is also the most reserved justice based on his low intensity level. If anything, I might predict that a natural affinity may emerge between an affable Roberts and a mild Kavanaugh, with the Chief Justice finding in Kavanaugh a kindred spirit: a relatively speaking middle-of-the-road, circumspect evaluator of cases on a court dominated by conservatives.

Trump Stiffs G7 in Favor of North Korea

Who needs old-fashioned democratic allies when you can go hang out with a dictator who ordered his half-brother poisoned and other people executed using anti-aircraft guns? By comparison, surely Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is “weak” (according to Donald Trump).  Welcome to the wacky – and corrosive – world of American foreign policy as our president stiffs the leaders of what Ronald Reagan used to call the “free world” in favor of serenading Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

061118-01 BBC G7 By the Numbers

Speaking of stiff,  what to make of this photograph posted from the official account of German chancellor Angela Merkel as the G7 summit was collapsing into discord? Some people online have interpreted the photo as Trump sheepishly taking a scolding from Merkel playing the role of school marm. I couldn’t disagree more. Trump is displaying what is perhaps his single most signature expression: an upside-down “grin” caused by a rising chin. Left to itself, that facial muscle activity reveals anger, disgust and sadness. But in this case, there’s also a slight, actual smile accompanying the upside-down grin – plus narrowed eyes that signal anger. Throw in the defensive, folded-arms body gesture and what you’ve got here is Trump as defiant bad boy, pleased with himself as Merkel tries to cross the moat into the castle of Trump’s ego.

How about the other folks captured on camera here? Figure 6 is Merkel, looking slightly pained around the eyes as she tries to reason with Trump. More demonstrative is Figure 7: the French president Emmanuel Macron. Even at this oblique angle, it’s hard to miss the wrinkles across Macron’s forehead, expressing both surprise and fear. Figure 8 is British prime minister Theresa May, all but invisible (apt symbolism there, nice job Germany!). Finally, Figure 4 is Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, doing his best imitation of being Trump’s mirror brother.

How well is the G7 summit outside of Quebec City going? Figure 3 is a senior official in Japan’s foreign affairs ministry and his face sums up the summit’s status as debacle. His right outer eyebrow is cocked upwards in alarm, while his mouth is simultaneously both taut with tension and pulled ever so slightly wide in fear. So much for famed Japanese subtlety! When Donald Trump is part of the picture, forget nuances: it’s right on to people like Figure 9, Larry Kudlow, the president’s new director of the U.S. National Economic Council. He’s the guy who afterwards told CNN that Trudeau “stabbed us in the back” at his post-G7 summit post conference by again denouncing the new U.S. tarriffs on steel and aluminium being imported from the EU, Mexico and Canada.

How wrong of an ally to “stab us in the back.” Trump’s not “very dishonest” like Trudeau supposedly is. Why, you might say that he verbally stabs people right in the stomach instead.  Reinstate Russia to make it the G8 again? Take that Theresa May. The recent poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter Yulia on British soil can’t count for much. Not when you are all robust smiles (so uncharacteristic of anger, disgust and sadness-ridden Trump) at the prospect of picking up a Noble Peace Prize for officially ending the Korean War with your new pal, Kim Yong Un.

Isn’t cooperative, paint-slowly-by-numbers democracy such a bother? Long live the regime, whether it be yours or mine. That might not be what Trump is thinking, but it’s most assuredly what he’s impulsively feeling one tweet and photo-op after another.

The Empire Strikes Back: When Harry Weds Meghan

“Royals can marry chorus girls and sometimes even Americans” Prince Harry apparently said before the wedding, giving me hope that this wasn’t just a paint-by-numbers “fairy tale” marriage. Nevertheless, let me first give credit where credit’s due. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of royal wedding hoopla, but this was truly a stunning spectacle that the newly-minted Duke and Duchess of Sussex pulled off. The ceremony itself was innovative instead of a rote exercise. The genuine affection on display between the couple was something Lady Diana and Prince Charles could have only dreamed of. And afterwards, the majestic carriage procession through the narrow streets of Windsor was about as intimate an affair as possible considering the scale of the event.

Naturally, as a facial coder I couldn’t resist assessing Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s feelings on their big day, starting with the groom’s wait for his bride. Was Harry a little nervous? Not outside the church, but once he and his brother, William, stepped indoors the (relaxed) smiles previously evident began to flicker on and off like a lighthouse beam. The latest smile would go on, only to be replaced by either a mouth-pulled wide expression of stage fright or else a sigh accompanied by lips pressed together in apparent annoyance at having to stand-on-ceremony, not a natural occurrence, especially given Harry’s mischievous, cheeky nature.

For most of the ceremony that followed, your eyes weren’t deceiving you if you saw a radiant bride and a more solemn groom. Harry’s been on stage all his life, as a royal, but now his eyes were blinking or else downcast, his eyebows often furrowed in a look of pained concentration, and it wasn’t until Harry lifted Meghan’s veil that the couple—in unison—managed a joyous, true smile. Until then, Meghan, the professional actress, was the one best holding it together with an almost seamless series of modest, equal-to-the-moment smiles. The lifting of the bride’s veil qualifies as an expected “highlight.” That’s not so true of the impassioned sermon that followed.

052018-01 Harry Meghan Reaction

Now things got interesting. The choice of Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American to serve as the bishop of the Episcopal Church, to deliver the sermon was already notable in itself.  But it was the performance he gave that almost stole the show. Leaning in, Curry wasn’t doing so to recall whatever text appeared on the high-tech tablet lying in front of him. No, Curry clearly knew his message by heart, and I do mean by heart.

052018-02 Reverend Curry

Curry let loose with references to Martin Luther King, Jr., to slavery, to reminding the assembled audience that “love is the way.” Prince Harry mostly smiled along, with a few smirks. By contrast, Meghan’s eyes shot wide open with surprise and anxiety at times—like she was getting even more for “her money” than she could have imagined. It’s an expression that also shows some anger, as Curry went on at some length, while Camilla looked on, mouth agape, seemingly bewildered, and other members of the English royal family arched their eyebrows and allowed themselves faint, pert ironic smiles. No passion, please; we’re British, was all but the signal being given.

You could say the entire wedding event was a case of the Empire Strikes Back. Who but the British royal family could stage a resplendent spectacle like this one? Then again, saying The Empire Strikes Back could also apply to former subjects as equals: a thoroughly integrated wedding ceremony—starting with Meghan, a biracial American bride, and extending to elements like a black gospel choir singing “Stand By Me.”

When the British Empire was at its zenith, a century ago, the English firmly held sway over nearly one-fourth of the world’s population and land mass. Today the “empire” is mostly a collection of island outposts. The royals have held onto their many privileges, but even that may change someday.  Nothing is forever. Perhaps you noticed how Harry’s right eyebrow shot up in surprise and anxiety when asked to repeat two parts of the wedding vows? The first was “til death do we part.” The second? Well, that would be the promise that “All I have I share with you.”

052018-03 Harry Raised Eyebrows

With Guiliani Aboard, Are There Now Two, Three or a Thousand Stooges?

Well, despite running a 2016 presidential campaign akin to a fallen soufflé, Jeb Bush got something right. Remember the Republican primary debate in which Bush declared that Donald Trump was “great at the one-liners. But he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Enter Rudy Guiliani, stage right, as the White House’s new legal point man in dealing with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation–and more. In last week’s Fox interview of Guiliani, Sean Hannity clearly couldn’t believe what he was hearing when the more became the matter of hush money paid to Stormy Daniels with apparently the president’s knowledge.

But, oh, wait: Guiliani needs to learn to “get his facts straight” Trump then informed us.

The new, latest round of subsequent media interviews by Guiliani has solved nothing, of course. How could it be otherwise when the “facts” are something Guiliani admits “we’re still working on,” like a script you’re constantly rewriting in hopes the entire episode won’t turn out to be a flop, or worse, a disaster of historical proportions. “I can prove it’s rumor. I can’t prove it’s fact.” That’s one garbled statement. Another on-air answer this past weekend trailed off into saying a previous statement by Guiliani himself was actually, instead, “one of the possibilities of one of the rumors.”

In contrast, the nonverbal message being communicated by Guiliani was crystal-clear: fear. Here’s a man with his eyes bugging out, to go along with an occasional gulp or a mouth twitching wide in a display of anxiety about as well handled as a drunken man trying to hold onto a wet bar of soap in the shower.

050918-01 Giuliani Triple

The old Guiliani mostly showed combatant disgust, with a raised upper lip (see the left image) to ward off his critics. But now he’s simultaneously closing his eyes, unable to punch his way out of a paper bag. Truth be told, it might all be so funny—like a scene from The Three Stooges—if it 050918-02 Three Stoogesweren’t all so sad and dangerous. With one eye on Erdogan’s ever-tightening grip in Turkey, with the other I’m watching a serious, madcap farce playing out here at home. Guiliani is but the latest, inept addition to a cast of grafters (Scott Pruitt) and henchmen (Michael Cohen) that makes Trump’s boast of engaging in “truthful hyperbole” only half true most days.

Michelle Wolf at the White House Press Dinner

At least three analogies come to mind.  Pick your favorite. When the comedian Michelle Wolf gave the keynote roast at last Saturday’s televised White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., was her performance a matter of speaking-truth-to-power, humor-as-torture or humor-as-colonoscopy? (Check out Youtube for the full performance.) Certainly, President Donald Trump’s stand-in, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was not amused by the proceedings. Sitting on the dais just a few feet from Wolf, what did Sanders’s face reveal when the comedian aimed her barbed jokes at the press secretary starting at about the 13-minute mark of what proved to be a 19-minute performance?

050318-01 Michelle Wolf & Huckabee-Sanders

  • “I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handsmaid’s Tale’” Wolf puckishly said on stage, alluding to the terrifying re-education maestro at the center of the book, film, and now Hulu television series. In response, Sanders did more than flinch. Lips pressed in anger, with a slight disgust sneer, was Sanders’s first response, followed by the slightest of grimace smiles, closed eyes, and a raised eyebrow, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding shrug of dismissal.
  • As to the evening’s perhaps most notorious line about the press secretary, “she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” how did Sanders respond? A wide-mouth shudder of fear followed the reference to “burns facts.” Then Sanders settled back into coping with the pointed criticism by resorting to a combination of a slight smile, firm lips, and eyes momentarily closed in disappointment.

It wasn’t only Sanders who was disappointed. When Wolf moved from alluding to Aunt Lydia to rhetorically asking, “What’s Uncle Tom for white women who disappoint other white women?” the audience responded with both laughter and jeers. Did Wolf know she was pushing the edge? Absolutely, as Wolf’s rejoiner (“Oh, I know: Ann Coulter”) was one of the few times on stage that Wolf managed a true, eyes-crinkling smile of joy. Otherwise, Wolf tended to display a mixture of mouth-pulled-wide fear, fairly slight smiles, and a lower lip pulled down and out in disgust.

Some pundits have compared Wolfe’s performance to Stephen Colbert’s roast of George W. Bush at the 2006 White House press dinner. But after re-watching that earlier performance by Colbert, I can tell you the similarity is limited. Colbert mostly displayed eyes wide in mock surprise at his own jokes, delivered with numerous smiles amid mock consternation at what he had to tell the president seated beside him. Yes, Bush wasn’t always amused but at evening’s end he shook Colbert’s hand with a smile. This year after the roast was over, Sanders refused to participate in a photograph on the dais that would have brought her and Wolf together.

What’s the big take-away here? In 2006, the Iraq war fiasco and the aftermath of Katrina were ugly enough. But the country’s mood nowadays is, if anything, even uglier amid so much partisan rancor. When Wolf began to warm up for “ribbing” Sanders, she started by saying “We should definitely talk about the women in the Trump administration” and showed both a raised upper lip and a down-ward twisting lower lip at the same time: a double dose of disgust. Sanders on stage and Trump on a daily basis are likewise given to showing disgust, in turn, for those denouncing them. As an emotion, disgust signals that something tastes bad, smells bad; rejection results, and a loss of intimacy.

There is nothing congenial left in how Americans are interacting, politically, in the age of Trump. Many people found Wolfe’s remarks in poor taste, vulgar, and far more mean-spirited than funny, and they have a point. The president gleefully joined in, tweeting that the dinner was “DEAD as we know it.” But for anyone objecting to Wolf’s tone and content – given Trump’s own demeanor and antics – that’s a little bit akin to imagining Al Capone complaining back in the day about John Dillinger’s behavior. Being “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius,” Trump promised us he would hire the “best people” to join his administration. A year and a half after Trump won the election, I’m voting for humor-as-colonoscopy to explain Wolf’s performance.

Grief-Stricken: Comey Pushes Back Against Trump

One name kept coming to mind as I watched former F.B.I. director Jim Comey’s interview on ABC’s “20/20” program last night, and it wasn’t Vladimir Putin. Instead, the name was John Dean: the man who served as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel from 1970 to 1973. Why did Dean’s name resurface now? It’s that moment before the Senate Watergate Committee when Dean recalls telling the president that, given the cover-up underway, there was “a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed that the president himself would be killed by it.”

Two details of Dean’s testimony stand out for me even after all these years. The first was the high stakes involved. While Alexander Butterfield’s inadvertent disclosure about the existence of a taping system within the White House was the torpedo that sank Nixon’s presidency, Dean’s testimony was the major, sustained, initial hit. The other detail is just how flat-footed but earnest Dean was as he stoically read a seven-hour opening statement, rarely emoting.

Comey’s five hours of being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos was boiled down into an hour-long segment on ABC. Also, there was plenty of emoting by the former F.B.I. director. Those are the differences between Dean and Comey’s televised appearances, neither of which takes away from the similarities between the two men and the circumstances they found themselves in. With Comey likely to be central to Robert Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, the stakes in judging Comey’s veracity and motives are immense; and, yes, Comey came across on the air as equally flat-footed but earnest.

041718-01 Dean & Comey (resize)

Of all the ways a person might emote, few if any are as hard to fake as when somebody’s inner eyebrows arch upwards without the entire brow rising. That movement is a reliable sign of sadness, fear and surprise.  Call it grief, for short. On “20/20”, Comey expressed grief repeatedly and in bipartisan fashion. The inner eyebrows shot up, for example, while discussing Barrack Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch insisting Comey call his probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server a “matter”, not an “investigation”.  And they shot up again and again as Comey talked about Trump extracting a pledge of “honest loyalty” from Comey at a private White House dinner; about Trump raising Michael Flynn’s case and asking Comey to “let it go;” about inviting Russian guests into the White House shortly after firing Comey and telling those guests the “pressure is off;” about the possibility of Muller being fired by Trump; and finally even about the possibility of Trump ever being impeached.

Since Comey calls Trump’s presidency a “forest fire” causing grievous damage to America in his new book, A Higher Loyalty, why not favor impeachment? The former F.B.I. director’s rationale is that to do so would be the easy way out. As he said on “20/20”, the American people need to “vote their values,” values Comey believes amount to faith in maintaining that nobody is above the law. In making that statement on the air, for one of the few times in the interview Comey’s lower eyelids grew taut with anger.

Why is anger, and its rarity compared to expressions of grief, significant? Because expressing anger so rarely speaks to Comey’s motives in going on offense against Trump with the new book and an extensive book tour. Will Comey make some money? Yes. Does he hope to restore and possibly even burnish his reputation? Undoubtedly. Is he out for revenge? Due to the far greater frequency of grief instead of anger, I don’t think so. I believe Comey is utterly earnest about seeing Trump as equivalent to a mafia boss who must be stopped before inflicting more damage on the country. (Other instances where Comey shows that brand of anger is Trump’s habit of trying to establish dominance, and Trump treating women “like meat.”)

One pejorative slang term for cops is to of course call them “flatfoots”.  Of Comey’s fundamental honesty and decency I have little doubt after watching him on “20/20”. As to any criticism of him, who could say they would do better in the situations Comey experienced? Still, there is something a little odd about a veteran, high-level law enforcement officer allowing himself to be alone with Trump more than once, no witnesses present, for compromising conversations.

Comey admits to not having had “the guts” to push back against Trump in-person. In making that admission to Stephanopoulos, Comey’s entire brow raised as if in perpetual surprise and discomfort about his own lack of courage.  In perhaps being naïve in an un-naïve sort of way, Comey brought to mind Dean yet again, given the moment captured on tape of Dean telling Nixon, “I have the impression that you don’t know everything I know,” when in fact Nixon knew plenty more than Dean had yet to realize.

A Tight-Lipped Zuckerberg: The Face of Facebook in the Congressional Hot Seat

So it’s over. Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spent two days being questioned by Congress about Russian and Cambridge Analytica malfeasance involving Facebook’s platform, and the verdict from Wall Street is that Zuckerberg did great. Over those two days, the stock price rose more than 5%, adding over $24 billion to Facebook’s capitalization and personally netting Zuckerberg around $3 billion. That’s not a bad return on Facebook’s investment of hiring a team from the law firm WilmerHale to put Zuckerberg through “charm school” before the hearings began.

So far so good, but how did Zuckerberg really perform? Can Congressional leaders and the American public believe what Facebook’s CEO said? The nonverbal signals suggest otherwise.

The goal was for Zuckerberg to come across as humble, contrite, and trustworthy. That would be Zuckerberg as kindly Dr. Jekyll (in a newfound suit and tie) and not the evil Mr. Hyde version (in his usual gray t-shirt and hoodie) as emphasized in the movie The Social Network. Yes, Zuckerberg (mostly) said all the right things. “Our top priority has always been our social mission,” Zuckerberg intoned right on-message as he spoke of “connecting people” and “building communities.” But often the CEO wasn’t especially on-emotion when it came to appearing open-minded and open-hearted regarding users’ concerns about privacy and transparency.  Examples abound.

041318-01 Zuckerberg

 In an opening statement mea culpa, Zuckerberg told the Senators “I’m sorry” while glaring at them defiantly.  Is Facebook a monopoly? Zuckerberg managed a forced smile as he asserted that it “certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.” But by then, his eyebrows had already shot up, while averting his gaze, in initially reacting to Senator Lindsey Graham’s query. Clearly, the question had hit its mark.

041318-02 Zuckerberg

Sometimes, Zuckerberg backtracked. For example, Senator Diane Feinstein wanted to know: “Why not ban Cambridge [Analytica from accessing data]?” Of course, the real answer is that Facebook’s business model depends on harvesting and sharing people’s personal data. So Zuckerberg’s voice got tight and his mouth pulled wide in fear as he dodged the question by saying Cambridge Analytica wasn’t an advertiser (and therefore seemingly immune to any ban). After a break and conferring with “his team,” however, Zuckerberg informed the Senators he’d “misspoke.” Zuckerberg gave that admission with his eyes wide, alert to whatever danger his fudging might bring.

041318-03 Zuckerberg

All in all, it’s true that the Senators and Representatives didn’t extract any firm, worthwhile promises from Zuckerberg to do better in terms of users’ privacy. The team that was so quick to inform Zuckerberg that he’d misspoken in regards to Cambridge Analytica’s initial status as an advertiser apparently couldn’t be as quick to provide specific solutions for the concerns Congress was raising. Relatively unscathed, an ever more confident Zuckerberg eventually moved by degrees to being his usual reckless, happy-go-lucky self.

041318-04 Zuckerberg

Asked point blank by a member of the House of Representatives on day two of his testimony, “Why should we trust you?” Zuckerberg felt comfortable blithely smiling his way through his answer.

041318-05 Zuckerberg

At 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park, California, “move fast and break things” remains the unofficial model of an enterprise that first found its footing by posting photos of Harvard female students being often harshly ranked by other (male) students regarding their beauty. Anger was Zuckerberg’s primary mode during the hearings, a closed, tightly-expressed emotion about wanting to be in control and move ahead as you see fit.  Zuckerberg’s initial, angry Mr. Hyde tendency, on display this week on Capitol Hill, doesn’t bode well for Congress or users getting anything close to what they want from Facebook going forward. Advertisers, well, that’s another story altogether.

When “You’re Fired” Becomes a Constitutional Crisis

Trained killers will kill, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the presidency of Donald Trump could be approaching a constitutional crisis. As a way to squelch special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of him, will Trump fire U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? And would Trump be within his rights to do so? The legality of this and other possible maneuvering by Trump to avoid further scrutiny in the wake of the FBI raid that seized documents from Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen is a story still to be told: likely in Congress, in the courts, and most of all in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, as Lou Reed’s favorite poet Delmore Schwartz once observed, the past is inevitable. So it’s to the past we can turn for a more definitive perspective on the current mess.

A large part of this looming crisis goes back to Donald’s relationship with his father, Fred, and how Donald was trained. “You are a killer . . . you are a king . . . you are a killer . . . you are a king” was the mantra Fred used to tell his two boys, Freddy and Donald, from their early childhoods onward. Never be vulnerable was the underlying message. Freddy the “loveable loser” flamed out long ago from alcoholism, but Donald is still going strong . . . or is he? Was Donald ever really, truly strong? To what degree is the boy who endlessly sought to gain his father’s attention and approval, while eager to best him, still the insecure brat who once bullied classmates and engaged in mischief involving stink bombs and switchblades?

Trained killers will kill, which brings us back to the present. Watch the extraordinary video of Trump objecting to the FBI raid—“an attack on our country”—and beyond the words, what stands out the most? To be sure, there’s Trump’s anger.  In calling the investigation “a total witch hunt,” Trump’s eyes narrow. And when he characterizes the raid as a “break in,” there’s more of that look of eyes reduced to slits, with the lower eyelids taut with anger to go along with an upper lip raised in anger and disgust.

041218-01 Trump Dual Image

But an infuriated, fuming Trump is only part of the story here, emotionally speaking. Never be vulnerable. There’s also a president understandably weary of an investigation that’s lasted almost the length of his presidency. The strain would hamper any man, and certainly somebody now 71 years old. He’s not a boy anymore, but what are the odds Trump hasn’t been engaged in mischief that might earn him more than just his father’s begrudging admiration? Watch the video, and you’ll also see Trump closing his eyes as if to ward off the mess he’s found himself in. Even more so, note the fear. Cohen’s “a good man” Trump vows, but the president’s mouth pulls wide in fear as he says so. Cohen has been by all accounts his fixer, and now the fixer could be somebody who, given enough legal pressure, could spill the beans and leave Trump extremely vulnerable. Fear piles up. The investigation’s “a disgrace” Trump also says, even as his right outer eyebrow arches up in fear and surprise, eyes closed again. A “biased” team of investigators, Trump objects. Again his mouth pulls wide in fear. Everybody’s unfairly after him, Trump believes and feels the danger.

What Mueller knows, or is about to know thanks in part to Cohen’s documents, we don’t know. But eventually the public will find out. What we already know is Donald Trump’s personality and modus operandi. His grandfather ran brothels in the Wild West. His father, Fred, augmented his other real estate earnings by building G.I. housing after World War Two—and was investigated by the government for possibly bilking it. Now his son is the government, he’s the president, but he’s wild and quite likely been operating outside the law while supposedly embodying the law of the land. Trump’s signature line on The Apprentice was, of course, telling people “You’re fired”: in effect killing off “losers.” Waves of people have already left this administration. Will Trump fire Rosenstein, Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Who’s next? Or will it be Trump ultimately getting fired from his own White House reality show? Whatever happens, the ratings will remain sky-high.

 

The Importance of Being Angry: John Bolton’s New Job

In The Godfather, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered character of Tom Hagen loses his role within the Corleone family because he may be a good lawyer, but he’s not a “war-time” consigliere. In conflict with the other ruling mafia families in New York City, Michael Corleone wants to rely on his father’s advice instead.  With John Bolton replacing H. R. McMaster as Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, heaven help us now that a “kiss-up, kick-down” character has the President’s ear. Out goes somebody Hagen-like in being a voice of reason; in comes Belligerence personified.

“Kiss-up, kick-down” was how Bolton was described during the U.S. Senate hearings in which Republicans helped deny Bolton’s formal nomination as America’s next U.N. ambassador. (George W. Bush gave Bolton the job anyway, for a while, by making him a recess appointee.) Bolton is colorful. A brown-noser of those in power above him while infamous for browbeating subordinates, Bolton has dismissed government bureaucrats as “munchkins.”

Not unexpectedly, a comparison of out-going McMaster’s emotive tendencies and Bolton’s points to major differences. McMaster is over five times more given to expressing surprise on his face than Bolton, also sadder, more anxious—and only half as prone to anger. In other words, McMaster tends to be more curious and sensitive to disappointments and danger. In contrast, over 50% of Bolton’s emotional profile consists of a single emotion, anger, the purpose of which is to hit out, attack, and remove what the person (rightly or wrongly) considers to be barriers to progress.

032718-01 Military Side-by-Side

Anger can facilitate tunnel-vision; Bolton advocated for the war in Iraq, and still views it as having been a good decision to intervene there. He’s also called for the “swift takeover” of North Korea by South Korea, believes in bombing Iran, and sees wisdom in rearranging Syria’s borders (by force).

Neither of the two remaining generals near Trump—White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—are exactly thrilled about Bolton’s new job. But it’s easy to see how Trump could be. Drama and ego are what the former Apprentice ringmaster feeds on. We already know that lead attorney John Dowd resigned in no small part because he objected to Trump’s desire to have a sit-down with Robert Mueller’s investigative team. How could Trump resist such a starring role? Forget the risk of getting caught perjuring yourself and thereby enabling possible impeachment hearings.

Being on trial would be exciting.  Stormy Daniels already was.  Why not go all the way, because what could be more diverting and dramatic than becoming a war-time president? With the help of Bolton and the new nominee for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Trump may just get there.  The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s satirical play about staid Victorian society, was a good fit for its time. But this is now the Age of Trump and in being a bully who constantly spoils for a fight, what’s more handy for the President than having henchmen who like to hit others, too.

Trump and the Trinity of Blood, Money, and Sex

The Israeli author Amos Oz has noted the wicked irony of the Jewish people being forever condemned to rehash in conversations an unlikely pair of men they’ve suffered because of: Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler. So it is with America and Donald Trump, who seemingly lives to have his name on everybody’s lips. Day after day there’s another incident.  It’s amazing how Trump keeps reducing the dignity of being our President by violating basic standards of decency faster than anyone could have ever anticipated. All of which brings me to the subject of this particular blog: Stormy Daniels.

Bill Clinton had his infidelities exposed, from Jennifer Flowers to taking advantage of a still very young and impressionable Monica Lewinsky. But there’s never been quite anything like having a sitting President under scrutiny after his lawyer, Michael Cohen, admits to having paid $130,000 in 2016 to keep a porn star silent about the intimate details of her alleged relationship with the President a decade ago.

What kind of person is Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, aka Peggy Peterson in the legal agreement in which Trump is referred to as David Dennison? Should she get to tell her whole story to the media, including “60 Minutes,” the person on screen will show us smiles of varying intensities, accompanied by an upper lip raised in disgust, anger, and contempt. Now the smiles aren’t something for which Trump has any emotional affinity. He’s sadder than any President we’ve had since Richard Nixon. But disgust is the other emotion Trump specializes in. Everything stinks, is gross, causing a famous germophobe like Trump to also have problems with true intimacy, as disgust is an emotion all about creating boundaries between yourself and what’s around you.

 

031218-01 Daniels & Lewinsky (resize)

Trump doesn’t drink or smoke or do drugs. His “loveable loser” of a brother did, and Freddy died of alcoholism.  But Trump will have sex, lots of sex, with wives and prostitutes alike. In Fire & Furry, Steve Bannon gets quoted as saying there have been “a hundred” instances like Stormy Daniels,  and Abe Wallach, the former head of acquisitions for the Trump Organization, has said that “Donald is actually the most insecure man I’ve ever met,” somebody who needs to “fill a void inside. He used to do it with deals and sex. Now he does it with publicity.”

Well, actually it seems like Wallach got it half-right: insecurity, a void, a whirl of activity, yes. Trump moving on from sex? Not so much. Cohen’s pay off (supposedly from his own pocket, without being reimbursed by Trump personally or at least his campaign) remains to be investigated.  Will that detail become another clue scrutinized by Robert Mueller’s team? As a journalist I once heard being interviewed on the radio said: after a few years in this profession, you learn that if the story doesn’t include at least one of these three elements—blood, money or sex—then it isn’t a story with any real legs to it.

Trump’s got the blood part down pat. My tribe, not yours. What is “Make America Great Again” if not in some measure a dog’s whistle plea to make America white again (as many a commentator has noted)? Ditto when it comes to money and sex, and the intersection of the two. The New Yorker has reported that when Trump offered a former Playmate of the Year (Karen McDougal) money after sex, she declined, to which Trump replied: “You are special.” What photographs, video, or other kinds of evidence the Russians might own and could be using to blackmail Trump given his sexcapades, who knows. But I can say that the nature of Stormy Daniels, as evident from her photos, isn’t of somebody likely to be cowed by any of Trump’s legal shenanigans. Monica Lewinsky responded to all of the publicity that came her way with a mixture of bittersweet smiles and eyes-unfocused sadness, but Daniels will, indeed, be stormy not subdued.

To me, Bill Clinton’s ugly penchant for cheating on Hillary is rooted in a comment he allegedly made to his friend Vernon Jordan on a golf course one day: “I used to be a fat, poor kid and now I can have any woman I want.” Bill’s dalliances have always struck me as mostly a matter of that former leader wanting to see who he could woo and seduce next, as a testament to his personal powers of persuasion.  Money never much interested Bill, I believe, except as re-election funds. With Trump, however, cash and sex are more closely married than Donald is to Melania. Our current president’s idea of pillow talk? That apparently consisted of asking Daniels how much she makes in royalties from her various pornographic movies.