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Why Are Former Presidents Supposed to Shut Up About Their Successors?

Mother Jones

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Since leaving office, Barack Obama has made a few veiled criticisms of Donald Trump. Conservatives are pretty unhappy about this. It’s tradition for ex-presidents to maintain a dignified silence about their successors, after all.

This is mostly true, but when did it become a tradition? It certainly hasn’t been one forever. Herbert Hoover was a constant presence on the radio blasting FDR during the Depression, and Harry Truman remained a gadfly after he left office.

Eisenhower changed things up. After beating Hitler and serving two terms as president, he decided to adopt the elder statesman role. Then Kennedy died before leaving office, LBJ slunk back to Texas a broken man, and Nixon resigned in disgrace. By hook or by crook, the “tradition” of ex-presidential silence was two decades old by the time Reagan became president. It’s mostly held ever since.

Is there a good reason for this? The pretense seems kind of precious to me. Why treat sitting presidents like china dolls who can’t take some heat from their predecessors? Ex-presidents are among the greatest politicians alive, and usually the effective leaders of their party, at least for a while. They typically command a throng of admirers. The most natural thing in the world would be for them to maintain a robust political presence if they want to. Why shouldn’t they?

Ditto for losing presidential candidates. This is usually less of an issue, since most people don’t really want to listen to losers. But not always. Hillary Clinton should never run for office again—and she’s said she won’t—but why shouldn’t she stay loudly involved in politics if she can help lead the loyal opposition until Democrats coalesce around a new party leader?

Does anyone know the answer about this tradition? Is it really just an Eisenhower thing that somehow congealed into conventional wisdom? Do other countries have anything similar?

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Why Are Former Presidents Supposed to Shut Up About Their Successors?

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It’s Crunch Time for the Republican Party

Mother Jones

How the world works, 2017 edition:

July 2016: Republicans are united in outrage when James Comey declines to recommend charges against crooked Hillary Clinton despite mountains of evidence that she is totally guilty.

Today: Republicans are united in disappointment at Comey’s decision to harm poor Hillary Clinton by breaching agency guidelines against commenting on investigations and interfering with an upcoming election. Thank God he’s finally been fired.

The official story about Comey’s firing goes something like this. On April 25, Rod Rosenstein was confirmed as deputy attorney general. It takes him less than two weeks to put together a memo arguing that: Comey was wrong to usurp the attorney general’s prosecutorial authority. He was wrong to hold a “derogatory” press conference about Clinton. He was wrong three months later to claim that keeping quiet about the Huma Abedin emails amounted to “concealing” them. He shouldn’t have said anything on October 28. Rosenstein concludes by saying that everyone from the janitor to the pope agrees that this was obviously egregious behavior on Comey’s part. Within hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommends Comey be fired and Trump immediately announces Comey’s termination. Comey hears about it on TV.

Needless to say, there is precisely nothing new in any of this. As Rosenstein says, these criticisms of Comey have been obvious from the start, and Trump could have used them as justification for firing Comey at any time. But he didn’t. Until now.

The difference between then and now, of course, is that then Comey was helping bury Hillary Clinton, and now Comey is investigating ties between Russia and Trump. So only now is it time for Comey to go.

So far, there are a tiny handful of Republicans who are “troubled” by Comey’s firing. Will they go any farther? Will any more Republicans join them? Or is everyone going to take one for the team and pretend that Comey really was fired because of how badly he treated Hillary Clinton?

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It’s Crunch Time for the Republican Party

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Obama Lays Out Plans in His First Post-Presidency Public Appearance

Mother Jones

In his first public appearance since leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama said that empowering young people to take on leadership roles would be the “single most important” issue in his post-presidency life.

“What I’m convinced of is that although there are all kinds of issues I care about, and all kinds of issues I can work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world,” Obama said at a panel discussion on civic engagement that he led at the University of Chicago on Monday.

Obama made no direct mention of President Donald Trump or the 2016 presidential election, but he pointed to the divisive nature of US politics as the most significant barrier to progress on a host of problems, from flaws in the criminal justice system to climate change.

Obama’s return to Chicago marked his reemergence in public life following a three-month vacation. His remarks echoed previous statements in which he’s hinted at focusing on community organizing efforts as a private citizen.

The free-form panel discussion featured several moments of levity from the former president, including an acknowledgement that panel members were given questions ahead of the event—a subtle reference to Trump’s complaints that Hillary Clinton had an unfair advantage during the presidential debates.

Aside from a brief statement in support of protesters against Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, Obama has avoided publicly criticizing his successor. Trump, on the other hand, has frequently lashed out at his predecessor. Most notably, in March, he accused Obama of ordering illegal surveillance of him and his associates.

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Obama Lays Out Plans in His First Post-Presidency Public Appearance

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Let’s Talk About Bubbles and James Comey

Mother Jones

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I have frequently made the case that Donald Trump is president because of FBI director James Comey. On October 28, Comey wrote a letter to Congress telling them that the FBI was investigating a new cache of Clinton emails that it found on the laptop of Huma Abedin’s estranged husband, Anthony Weiner. That was the turning point. Clinton’s electoral fortunes went downhill from there and never recovered.

As shocking as this may sound, not everyone agrees with me. A new book, Shattered, makes the case that Clinton was an epically bad candidate and her campaign was epically badly run. That’s why she lost. Yesterday, Shadi Hamid took aim at me for my continued Comey obsession in the face of the story told in Shattered:

Let’s talk. There’s a reason I blame Comey, and it’s not because I live in a bubble. It’s because a massive amount of evidence points that way. Today I want to put the whole case in one l-o-o-o-o-ng post so everyone understands why I think Comey was the deciding factor in the election. If you still disagree, that’s fine, but this is the evidence you need to argue with.

NOTE: I want to make clear that I’m talking solely about Hillary Clinton and the presidency here. Democrats have been badly pummeled at the state level over the past six years, and that obviously has nothing to do with Comey. It’s something that Democrats need to do some soul searching about.

Ready? Let’s start with some throat-clearing.

First: Keep in mind that Clinton was running for a third Democratic term during a period when (a) the economy was OK but not great and (b) Barack Obama’s popularity was OK but not great. Models based on fundamentals therefore rated the election as something of a tossup. Clinton was not running as a sure winner.

Second: For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Hillary Clinton was an epically bad, unpopular candidate who ran a terrible campaign. She foolishly used a private email server while she was Secretary of State. She gave millions of dollars in speeches after leaving the State Department. She was a boring speaker with a mushy agenda. She was a hawkish Wall Street shill who failed to appeal to millennials. She lost the support of the white working class. Her campaign was a cespool of ego, power-mongering, and bad strategy. Let’s just assume all that.

If this is true, it was true for the entire year. Maybe longer. And yet, despite this epic horribleness, Clinton had a solid, steady lead over Trump the entire time. The only exception was a brief dip in July when Comey held his first presser to call Clinton “extremely careless” in her handling of emails. Whatever else you can say about Hillary Clinton, everyone knew about her speeches and her emails and her centrism and everything else all along. And yet, the public still preferred her by a steady 3-7 percentage points over Trump for the entire year.

Third: Every campaign has problems. If you win, they get swept under the rug. If you lose, bitter staffers bend the ears of anyone who will listen about the campaign’s unprecedented dysfunction and poor strategy. This is all normal. Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns had all the usual problems, and in a close election you can blame any of them for a loss. But two things set the Comey letter apart. First, it had a big effect right at the end of the race. Second, it was decidedly not a normal thing. It came out of the blue for no good reason from the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. There is nothing Clinton could have done about it.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the final two months of the campaign. All of the poll estimates look pretty similar, but I’m going to use Sam Wang’s EV estimator because it gives a pretty sharp day-to-day look at the race. Wang’s final estimate was wrong, of course, like pretty much everyone else’s, but don’t worry about that. What we’re interested in is the ups and downs. What Wang’s estimate tells us is that, with the brief exception of the July Comey presser, the race was amazingly stable. From January through August, he has Clinton at 330-340 electoral votes. Let’s pick up the story in September:

At the beginning of September, Clinton slumps after her “deplorables” comment and her stumble at the 9/11 memorial. After Trump’s shockingly bad performance at the first debate she starts to regain ground, and continues to gain ground when the Access Hollywood tape is released. By the end of October she’s back to where she started, with a big lead over Trump. THIS IS IMPORTANT: despite everything — weak fundamentals, the “deplorables” comment, her personal unpopularity, her mushy centrism, her allegedly terrible campaign — by the end of October she’s well ahead of Trump, just as she had been all year.

On October 25, HHS announces that Obamacare premiums will go up substantially in the following year. This doesn’t appear to have any effect. Then, on October 28, Comey releases his letter. Clinton’s support plummets immediately, and there’s no time for it to recover. On November 8, Trump is elected president.

But how much did Comey’s letter cost Clinton? Let’s review the voluminous evidence:

Nate Silver estimates the Comey letter cost Clinton about 3 points.
A panel survey from the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics suggests the Comey letter produced a net swing of 4 points toward Trump.
Sam Wang estimates the Comey letter cost Clinton 4 points, though she may have made back some of that in the final days.
Engagement Labs tracks “what people are talking about.” Immediately after the Comey letter, they registered a 17-point drop in favorable sentiment toward Clinton.
Google searches for “Hillary’s email” spiked 300 percent after Comey’s letter.
The tone of news coverage flipped enormously against Clinton after the Comey letter.
A trio of researchers who looked at the evidence concluded that Comey’s letter was decisive, probably costing Clinton 3-4 points in the popular vote.
Trump’s own analysts think the Comey letter was decisive.
The Clinton campaign agrees that the Comey letter was decisive, and adds that Comey’s second letter hurt her too.1

I’m not sure how much clearer the evidence could be. Basically, Hillary Clinton was doing fine until October 28. Then the Comey letter cost her 2-4 percent of the popular vote. Without Comey she would have won comfortably — possibly by a landslide — even though the fundamentals predicted a close race.

That’s it. That’s the evidence. If you disagree that Comey was decisive, you need to account for two things. First, if the problem was something intrinsic to Clinton or her campaign, why was she so far ahead of Trump for the entire race? Second, if Comey wasn’t at fault, what plausibly accounts for Clinton’s huge and sudden change in fortune starting precisely on October 28?

One way or another, it appears that all the things that were under Hillary Clinton’s control were handled fairly well. They produced a steady lead throughout the campaign. The Comey letter exists on an entirely different plane. It was an unprecedented breach of protocol from the FBI; it was completely out of Clinton’s control; and it had a tremendous impact. That’s why I blame James Comey for Donald Trump’s victory.

1The second letter was the one that cleared her. However, merely by keeping the subject in the news, it hurt Clinton.

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Let’s Talk About Bubbles and James Comey

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Trump Invites Sarah Palin, Kid Rock, and Ted Nugent to the White House

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump hosted a trio of eyebrow-raising guests at the White House on Wednesday, reportedly dining with Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock.

It’s not clear why Palin and her musician pals, one of whom has praised the use of the word “nigger” and suggested Barack Obama “suck on” his machine gun, were invited to the Oval Office, but here we are:

The guests even managed to sneak in a photo posing in front of a portrait of Hillary Clinton—seen in this Facebook post by Nugent’s wife, the self-avowed “Healthy Lifestyle Ambassador” Shermane Nugent:

The photos were roundly mocked when they first began appearing on social media:

Perhaps this is just one more reason the Trump White House is opting to keep its visitor logs secret?

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Trump Invites Sarah Palin, Kid Rock, and Ted Nugent to the White House

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