September 29, 2018 in 3,440 words

‘This guy doesn’t know anything’: the inside story of Trump’s shambolic transition team

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short, reveals how Trump’s bungled presidential transition set the template for his time in the White House


Chris Christie noticed a piece in the New York Times – that’s how it all started. The New Jersey governor had dropped out of the presidential race in February 2016 and thrown what support he had behind Donald Trump. In late April, he saw the article. It described meetings between representatives of the remaining candidates still in the race – Trump, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – and the Obama White House. Anyone who still had any kind of shot at becoming president of the United States apparently needed to start preparing to run the federal government. The guy Trump sent to the meeting was, in Christie’s estimation, comically underqualified. Christie called up Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to ask why this critical job had not been handed to someone who actually knew something about government. “We don’t have anyone,” said Lewandowski.

Christie volunteered himself for the job: head of the Donald Trump presidential transition team. “It’s the next best thing to being president,” he told friends. “You get to plan the presidency.” He went to see Trump about it. Trump said he didn’t want a presidential transition team. Why did anyone need to plan anything before he actually became president? It’s legally required, said Christie. Trump asked where the money was going to come from to pay for the transition team. Christie explained that Trump could either pay for it himself or take it out of campaign funds. Trump didn’t want to pay for it himself. He didn’t want to take it out of campaign funds, either, but he agreed, grudgingly, that Christie should go ahead and raise a separate fund to pay for his transition team. “But not too much!” he said.

And so Christie set out to prepare for the unlikely event that Donald Trump would one day be elected president of the United States. Not everyone in Trump’s campaign was happy to see him on the job. In June, Christie received a call from Trump adviser Paul Manafort. “The kid is paranoid about you,” Manafort said. The kid was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Back in 2005, when he was US attorney for New Jersey, Christie had prosecuted and jailed Kushner’s father, Charles, for tax fraud. Christie’s investigation revealed, in the bargain, that Charles Kushner had hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law, whom he suspected of cooperating with Christie, videotaped the sexual encounter and sent the tape to his sister. The Kushners apparently took their grudges seriously, and Christie sensed that Jared still harboured one against him. On the other hand, Trump, whom Christie considered almost a friend, could not have cared less.

Christie viewed Kushner as one of those people who thinks that, because he is rich, he must also be smart. Still, he had a certain cunning about him. And Christie soon found himself reporting everything he did to prepare for a Trump administration to an “executive committee”. The committee consisted of Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr, Eric Trump, Manafort, Steve Mnuchin and Jeff Sessions. “I’m kind of like the church elder who double-counts the collection plate every Sunday for the pastor,” said Sessions, who appeared uncomfortable with the entire situation. The elder’s job became more complicated in July 2016, when Trump was formally named the Republican nominee. The transition team now moved into an office in downtown Washington DC, and went looking for people to occupy the top 500 jobs in the federal government. They needed to fill all the cabinet positions, of course, but also a whole bunch of others that no one in the Trump campaign even knew existed. It is not obvious how you find the next secretary of state, much less the next secretary of transportation – never mind who should sit on the board of trustees of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

By August, 130 people were showing up every day, and hundreds more working part-time, at Trump transition headquarters, on the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The transition team made lists of likely candidates for all 500 jobs, plus other lists of informed people to roll into the various federal agencies the day after the election, to be briefed on whatever the federal agencies were doing. They gathered the names for these lists by travelling the country and talking to people: Republicans who had served in government, Trump’s closest advisers, recent occupants of the jobs that needed filling. Then they set about investigating any candidates for glaring flaws and embarrassing secrets and conflicts of interest. At the end of each week, Christie handed over binders, with lists of names of people who might do the jobs well, to Kushner, Donald Jr and the others. “They probed everything,” says a senior Trump transition official. “‘Who is this person?’ ‘Where did this person come from?’ They only ever rejected one person: Manafort’s secretary.”

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Prepare to spend a while; it’s The Long Read.


Nike’s Kaepernick ad is what happens when capitalism and activism collide

LATE CAPITALISM


In a capitalist democracy, advertising offers one of the loudest megaphones around.

There aren’t many entities in our lives that have voices as loud as those of corporations. They buy up air time between the shows we watch, or sometimes placement within them; elbow their way into our social media feeds; and plaster their ads all over our physical spaces.

While their encroachment into ever more aspects of our daily existence has been underway for decades, it’s worth remembering that only in the last couple did they really start to make their voices heard on contentious political and social matters.

“When I first began studying the interactions between social movements and corporations 25 years ago, it was rare to see business take a public stand on social issues,” Jerry Davis, a University of Michigan professor of management and sociology, wrote in a piece for the Conversation, detailing the rise of corporate social activism. They may have publicly voiced their opinions on topics like taxes and regulations, but remained “scrupulously neutral” otherwise, he explained, because they had little, if anything, to gain by speaking out.

That has all changed, of course, as Nike recently demonstrated when it chose to include former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its ad campaign to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the slogan “Just Do It.”


The Deliberate Awfulness of Social Media

To be alive and online in our time is to feel at once incensed and stultified by the onrush of information, helpless against the rising tide of bad news and worse opinions.


Social-media platforms know what you’re seeing, and they know how you acted in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and they can decide what you will see next.

Twitter, as everyone knows, is Hell. Its most hellish aspect is a twofold, self-reinforcing contradiction: you know that you could leave at any time and you know that you will not. (Its pleasures, in this sense, are largely masochistic.) My relationship with the Web site, which has, for years now, been the platform most deeply embedded in my daily—hourly, minutely—routine, has come to feel increasingly perverse. It mostly seems to offer a relentless confirmation that everything is both as awful as possible and somehow getting worse. And everyone else on Twitter appears to feel the same way. (You can check this claim right now by doing a Twitter search for phrases including “extremely normal website” and “I’m losing my mind.”) Last month, the writer Julius Sharpe posted the following exquisitely relatable sentiment: “Whenever someone stops tweeting, I feel like Ben Affleck going to Matt Damon’s house at the end of ‘Good Will Hunting.’ So happy for them.”

So why hasn’t Sharpe done a runner, like Matt Damon lighting out for the territory? And why, more to the point, haven’t I? The obvious answer is that social media is an addiction. The first argument in Jaron Lanier’s recent book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” is that the nexus of consumer technologies and submerged algorithms, which forms so large a part of contemporary reality, is deliberately engineered to get us hooked. “We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know,” he writes. “We’re all lab animals now.”

The problem, for Lanier, is not technology, per se. The problem is the business model based on the manipulation of individual behavior. Social-media platforms know what you’re seeing, and they know how you acted in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and they can decide what you will see next in order to further determine how you act—a feedback loop that gets progressively tighter until it becomes a binding force on an individual’s free will. One of the more insidious aspects of this model is the extent to which we, as social-media users, replicate its logic at the level of our own activity: we perform market analysis of our own utterances, calculating the reaction a particular post will generate and adjusting our output accordingly. Negative emotions like outrage and contempt and anxiety tend to drive significantly more engagement than positive ones. This toxic miasma of bad vibes—of masochistic pleasures—is not, in Lanier’s view, an epiphenomenon of social media, but rather the fuel on which it has been engineered to run.

Lanier has coined a term for this process: he calls it bummer, which stands for “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” (Sample bummer-based sentence: “Your identity is packified by bummer.” Sample marginalia, scrawled by this reviewer with sufficient desperate emphasis to literally tear the page: “Please stop saying bummer!”) In Lanier’s view, bummer is responsible, in whole or in part, for a disproportionate number of our contemporary ailments, from the election of Donald Trump to the late-career resurgence of measles due to online anti-vaccine paranoia.


6 Borders That Look Like They Were Drawn By Drunk People

Borders are important because they let countries know who they’re allowed to tax and/or shoot to death. That’s why it’s a little disconcerting to learn how many of these boundaries were drawn with less care than your average Bowsette hentai. And their management isn’t much better. For example …

6. There’s A Spanish City In Africa, And If You Make It In, You Can Stay


There’s nothing fun about illegally crossing the Mexican border into America. If you manage to avoid being shot, dying in the desert, or getting chucked in jail immediately upon arrival, you still may spend the rest of your life hunted by ICE agents. But for African people hoping to become European citizens, in some places the same process sounds weirdly … almost kind of fun?

Now don’t get us wrong, illegally crossing any border is incredibly dangerous and decidedly not a game, but Spain sure makes it sound like one. You see, Spanish laws are such that anybody who makes it into the country can declare asylum and apply for citizenship. Of course, getting into mainland Spain is pretty difficult for many Africans, so they instead try their luck at the much closer Spanish city of Melilla, which is located in Africa.

You fight an 800-year turf war, and you’ll get a few oddities like this.

Of course, Melilla officials are fully aware that would-be immigrants target their city, so they’ve erected a complicated series of fences and patrol them with guards like the world’s most hardcore obstacle course. Lest you think we’re making light of a clearly desperate situation, here’s the kicker: The guards aren’t armed. They’re allowed to smack wrists and stuff, but if somebody gets through, they get through.

Every once in awhile, several hundred hopefuls charge the fences in an attempt to make it into the city on the other side, and a few occasionally succeed. This weird perpetual non-sport is happening in a city that’s really not all that large, so for citizens of Melilla, it’s pretty easy to sit around and watch as foreigners desperately try to scale your walls. At this point, it’s only interesting to them insomuch as people loudly clamoring for freedom can really throw off your golf swing.


The problem with Harvard Business School case studies

METHOD TO THE MADNESS


Ready to perform.

Even if you didn’t go to business school, you’ve probably heard of Harvard case studies and the Harvard case method, the pedagogical system of choice at one of the world’s most elite business schools.

In slim booklets, the cases, of which there are tens of thousands, lay out the strategic questions facing a major corporation, like Amazon, GE, or Pepsi. The scenarios they describe are real, all ripped from the business pages.

The case method, as a style of learning, asks students to imagine themselves in the role of the “protagonist” (typically the CEO) leading the firm profiled in the case. They’re required to come to class prepared to make a solid argument for one course of direction, and then convince their peers of it, with rhetorical flair. Rather than lecture, the professor facilitates a class-wide debate, cold calling on students to answer tough questions.

Before graduating, Harvard Business School (HBS) students complete 500 of these “decision-forcing” exercises, which are thought to be superior tools for training future corporate leaders, compared with discussing skills and theory in the abstract. Arguably, because the method has been so widely adopted by other schools, which tend to combine it with traditional lecture formats (at Harvard, it’s used almost exclusively), it’s come to be synonymous with business education itself.


HOW BAD MAPS ARE RUINING AMERICAN BROADBAND

ISPs are painting over US broadband problems, and the FCC is letting it happen.

Like countless other American cities, Cleveland, Ohio, suffers from a lack of meaningful broadband competition. With only one or two largely apathetic ISPs to choose from, high prices, slow speeds, limited deployment, and customer service headaches are the norm. It’s particularly bad in the city’s poorer, urban areas. AT&T has avoided upgrading lower-income minority neighborhoods at the same rate as higher-income parts of the city, despite decades of subsidies and tax breaks intended to prevent that from happening, according to a report by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Even in more affluent neighborhoods, users are lucky if they have an ISP that can deliver speeds over 50 Mbps.

The problem is much bigger than Cleveland, but the FCC isn’t ready to do much about it. US customers pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world, and broadband availability is sketchy at best for millions of Americans. But instead of tackling that problem head on, the FCC is increasingly looking the other way, relying on ISP data that paints an inaccurately rosy picture of Americans’ internet access. And as long as regulators are relying on a false picture of US broadband access, actually solving the problem may be impossible.

As it currently stands, ISPs are required to deliver Form 477 data to the FCC indicating broadband availability and speed twice a year. But the FCC doesn’t audit the accuracy of this data, despite the fact that ISPs are heavily incentivized to overstate speed and availability to downplay industry failures. The FCC also refuses to make the pricing data provided by ISPs available to the public.

Worse, the FCC’s methodology declares an entire ZIP code as “served” with broadband if just one home in an entire census block has it. As a result, the government routinely declares countless markets connected and competitive when reality tells a very different story.


Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

“The idea of a tweeting president would have been a Madisonian dystopia,” argues Jeffrey Rosen in a new video based on the author’s recent article in The Atlantic. According to Rosen, the Founding Fathers designed the constitution to safeguard against the rise of demagogues. Because passionate arguments—the fodder of demagogues—are more likely to be shared on social media than rational arguments, mob rule is especially common on Twitter. This, Rosen explains, is the stuff of the framers’ nightmares. Read the full article on The Atlantic.


Michael Kosta provides some insight into why Republicans don’t just ditch Brett Kavanaugh.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.


Bill recaps the top stories of the week, including the ongoing battle over SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh.


In his editorial New Rule, Bill commemorates the 10th anniversary of “Religulous” and notes the similarities between President Trump and the God of the Old Testament.

THANKS to HBO and Real Time with Bill Maher for making this program available on YouTube.


Stephen explains how the viral video of a seal throwing an octopus at a kayaker was actually the perfect metaphor for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.


The President’s comments during a visit to North Carolina following Hurricane Florence weren’t helpful. That is, until the Late Show turned them into a children’s book with all proceeds going to hurricane relief organizations. Get your copy at colbertlateshow.com/book.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.


これなら箱を被っても猫でいられる。Though Maru puts on a box, he remains a cat.


FINALLY . . .

About time: why western philosophy can only teach us so much

By gaining greater knowledge of how others think, we can become less certain of the knowledge we think we have, which is always the first step to greater understanding.


One of the great unexplained wonders of human history is that written philosophy first flowered entirely separately in different parts of the globe at more or less the same time. The origins of Indian, Chinese and ancient Greek philosophy, as well as Buddhism, can all be traced back to a period of roughly 300 years, beginning in the 8th century BC.

These early philosophies have shaped the different ways people worship, live and think about the big questions that concern us all. Most people do not consciously articulate the philosophical assumptions they have absorbed and are often not even aware that they have any, but assumptions about the nature of self, ethics, sources of knowledge and the goals of life are deeply embedded in our cultures and frame our thinking without our being aware of them.

Yet, for all the varied and rich philosophical traditions across the world, the western philosophy I have studied for more than 30 years – based entirely on canonical western texts – is presented as the universal philosophy, the ultimate inquiry into human understanding. Comparative philosophy – study in two or more philosophical traditions – is left almost entirely to people working in anthropology or cultural studies. This abdication of interest assumes that comparative philosophy might help us to understand the intellectual cultures of India, China or the Muslim world, but not the human condition.

This has become something of an embarrassment for me. Until a few years ago, I knew virtually nothing about anything other than western philosophy, a tradition that stretches from the ancient Greeks to the great universities of Europe and the US. Yet, if you look at my PhD certificate or the names of the university departments where I studied, there is only one, unqualified, word: philosophy. Recently and belatedly, I have been exploring the great classical philosophies of the rest of the world, travelling across continents to encounter them first-hand. It has been the most rewarding intellectual journey of my life.

My philosophical journey has convinced me that we cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand others. Getting to know others requires avoiding the twin dangers of overestimating either how much we have in common or how much divides us. Our shared humanity and the perennial problems of life mean that we can always learn from and identify with the thoughts and practices of others, no matter how alien they might at first appear. At the same time, differences in ways of thinking can be both deep and subtle. If we assume too readily that we can see things from others’ points of view, we end up seeing them from merely a variation of our own.

To travel around the world’s philosophies is an opportunity to challenge the beliefs and ways of thinking we take for granted. By gaining greater knowledge of how others think, we can become less certain of the knowledge we think we have, which is always the first step to greater understanding.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Prepare to spend a while; it’s The Long Read.


Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?