Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Trump Nation
Show Description +

An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 6 Newer Notes

Follow-Up on the Health-Care Vote: On the Media, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Pentimenti

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

After these recent items about the Senate’s failure to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care law—installments #1 (drawing a parallel with 1960s-era Senator Clair Engle), #2 (when McCain voted yes on Tuesday night), and #3 (when he finally voted no)—several follow-ups:

On the Media

Two days ago I spoke with Bob Garfield of On the Media about the varied roles John McCain has played during his long career, leading up to this past week’s votes. As I said in the earlier pieces and on the air, McCain got to cast the “decisive” vote only because Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins had been firm in their opposition to the bill, along with the 46 Democrats (some from states Trump had carried) and two independents who voted no. Still, McCain is the only former presidential nominee now in the Senate, with a long and colorful career, so his deliberation deserves its extra examination. I thought this segment was interesting, because of the way OTM produced it with lots of historical sound clips from McCain. See what you think.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade

In our interview Bob Garfield brings up some episodes of John McCain’s unconventional comments, including  one involving Allahu Akbar. (I’ll let you listen to the tape to see the context.) Robert Ross, a sociology professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, wrote to say that we missed the big story:

I listened with interest today as you discussed McCain’s somewhat unique persona. But his arguably most “interesting” comments are these—celebrating the Communist Delmer Berg who fought in Spain with the Lincoln Brigade. No possible political calculation of gain could have inspired this piece—unless he knew I would remember it. But then, I did not exist in his world, so I think we must chalk it up to sincerity. How strange.

It turns out that what he is referring to is a NYT op-ed last year by McCain,  under the headline “Salute to a Communist.” McCain—as a Republican U.S. senator up at the time up for reelection—wrote of Berg and his comrades who had fought against Franco’s forces in the 1930s with the leftist Abraham Lincoln Brigade:

You might consider them romantics, fighting in a doomed cause for something greater than their self-interest. And even though men like Mr. Berg would identify with a cause, Communism, that inflicted far more misery than it ever alleviated—and rendered human dignity subservient to the state—I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.

I have felt that way since I was boy of 12, reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my father’s study. It is my favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan, the Midwestern teacher who fought and died in Spain, became my favorite literary hero. In the novel, Jordan had begun to see the cause as futile. He was cynical about its leadership, and distrustful of the Soviet cadres who tried to suborn it.

But in the final scene of the book, a wounded Jordan chooses to die to save the poor Spanish souls he fought beside and for. And Jordan’s cause wasn’t a clash of ideologies any longer, but a noble sacrifice for love.

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” Jordan thinks as he waits to die, “and I hate very much to leave it.” But he did leave it. Willingly.

Pentimento

I mentioned in a dispatch yesterday that if more Republicans had realized John McCain would ultimately vote no and thus, with Collins and Murkowski, doom the bill whatever the rest of them did, they might have saved themselves an awkward yes by joining him on that side too.

That was imprecisely put. The real difference McCain might have made to his soon-up-for-election colleagues, for instance Dean Heller of Nevada or Jeff Flake of Arizona, would be if he had voted no on the “Motion to Proceed” on Tuesday. This would have spared anyone the need to vote up or down on the bill that Lindsey Graham called a “disaster”—just before he, and all the rest of his fellow Republicans except Collins, Murkowski, and McCain went ahead and voted for it anyway.

A law professor in the midwest writes in to clarify the point:

I think Flake and Heller knew how McCain would be voting on the skinny repeal at least an hour, probably several hours, before it took place, and had time to consider the politics of their own votes. My guess is that they felt their own political futures were better served by voting the party line. Since the repeal and replace failed by virtue of the three Republican votes against (and the united 48 Dems), they may have felt their aye votes would not count much against them in the 2018 generals. We will see.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

More than two years ago, soon after Donald Trump entered the presidential race, I noted online that no one like him—with no political, military, judicial, or public-service experience, with no known expertise on policy matters, with a trail of financial and personal complications—had ever before become president. Therefore, I said, it wasn’t going to happen this time.

Quite obviously that was wrong. Penitent and determined to learn from my errors, I’ve avoided any predictions involving Trump and his circles ever since.

But a few days ago, I edged back into the danger zone, after my very first look of the just-named White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, on TV. Via the ever-perilous medium of Twitter, I observed that he seemed more at ease on camera than Sean Spicer ever had, and less committed to flat-Earth stonewalling denials than Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Maybe his smooth-schmoozy approach would be what the Trump team needed? Maybe the press should get ready to be handled by a pro?

Ooops. That looks wrong, too. Scaramucci’s half-hour live call-in to Chris Cuomo on CNN’s New Day this morning was unlike anything ever witnessed from other political “communicators,” and not in a good way. Among its charms is one David Graham quickly noted: Scaramucci’s off-hand reference to his relationship with Reince Priebus as being “like brothers” — as in “Cain and Abel.” I’m not quite sure which role—Cain as killer, or Abel as victim—Scaramucci thought looked better for him.

The whole thing, embedded below, is riveting, in a “Darwin Awards” or demolition-derby way. Congrats to Chris Cuomo for keeping his cool. I’d predict that your jaw will drop further, the longer you watch and listen—but that would violate my newly reinforced commitment to avoid any forecast whatsoever about Donald Trump and his team. Still, give it a look.

The siege of Stalingrad, one of several developments explained by Donald Trump. Bundesarchiv, via Wikipedia

In response to three recent pieces—one discussing the public and private parts of the U.S. system of self-governance that are still working, another arguing that Donald Trump’s monologue to the New York Times represented a new frontier in self-revelation, a third saying that a handful of Republican Senators have the nation’s fate at their disposal—several reactions from readers.

What about the Democrats? A reader with long professional experience in government writes:

I just read your post calling for three Republicans to demonstrate civic courage. As you put it,  “A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people.”

But it doesn’t—it relies on those three plus 48 Democrats. It is striking how often it’s just assumed that Democrats in this kind of situation will do the right thing.  

But why should they? If the 10 Democratic senators up for reelection next year in states that Trump carried were consulting their political self-interest in the way that seemingly all Republicans are doing, some at least might not be resisting Donald Trump as they are. Yet they remain steadfast—just as Democratic members remained steadfast in 2009-2010 in voting for the ACA and cap-and-trade, even when their political futures were in jeopardy.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile sometime to do a post about how Democrats seem so much more able these days to maintain our standards of governance and to display civic virtue under pressure.  That might be an edifying meditation.

***

What about the Attorney(s) General? In response to my noting that the Mueller investigation was (at the time) had not been derailed, a reader notes:

It is extraordinary that an article on this subject did not even mention the extremely important role played by the attorneys general of the several states in restraining Captain Combover. The role of the states in our political system has never been as significant as it is now.

Fair point. Last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival I did a very interesting (to me) Q-and-A with Xavier Becerra, long-time U.S. Representative from Los Angeles who has recently become California’s attorney general, on exactly this point. When a transcript or recording is available, I’ll post a link.

***

Elliot Richardson speaks to reporters on October 23, 1973, after resigning as U.S. attorney general. Richardson, along with his deputy William Ruckelshaus, resigned in protest after Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Charles Tasnadi / AP

Last week, Jim Fallows, who covered the fallout from the  Watergate scandal 45 years ago, wrote about five reasons why President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may pose an even greater challenge to the American system. In response, Stephen W.—a reader who was then a “young, idealistic college grad” working in Massachusetts politics—shared his own memory of the Saturday Night Massacre:

On the Saturday evening of October 20, 1973, I received a phone call from a mentor, Tom O’Donnell, a partner at Archibald Cox’s Boston law firm. I had heard the news earlier in the day: the firing of Cox, and the resignations of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. Tom asked me if I could perform a favor. AG Richardson was about to land at Logan Airport and needed a ride to his home in Cohasset.

As I pulled up to the terminal curbside, I saw the tall, horn-rim–spectacled figure standing alone in the faint light. I greeted him softly, “Welcome home, sir,” and took his buckled valise from his hand to place it in the trunk. As we made our way down the Southeast Expressway toward the south-shore enclaves of Yankee Brahmins, the night seemed particularly dark and gloomy. Very few people were out and about. I distinctly remember feeling the weight of the moment.

I feel the same weight today as I watch the Trump family tragedy play out. But I also remember the quiet countenance of Mr. Richardson. It was a profile of a patriot, putting country before party or self-interest. His expression was calm and deeply reflective as he sat in the front seat next to me, without a hint of anger or upset. There were no words of any import exchanged between us. It didn’t seem appropriate to intrude on his thoughts.

We exchanged a simple “thank you and good night,” as I passed his only bag back to him. As I pulled out of the long driveway of the dark and secluded home, the encounter left me with a deep impression of the significance of integrity and reputation in the course of all human affairs.

Your article triggers my memory—a very personal memory of the import of our solemn duties and responsibilities exercised for the preservation and protection of those exceptional ideals of democracy, against those who would suborn the rule of law.

Dozens of other readers wrote in to share their thoughts about those duties and responsibilities, as exercised by government officials and private citizens in Nixon’s era and ours. Fallows passed the emails on to me, and I’ve collected a number of them here. From Dan Kimmel:

Excellent article, but, like many, it glosses over the role of Robert Bork in the Saturday Night Massacre. I was no fan of Bork and was glad he never made it to the Supreme Court, but when he became acting head of the Justice Department, he told Richardson and Ruckelshaus he would fire Cox because he believed that the president had the authority to so order, but then he would resign in protest as well. Richardson and Ruckelshaus prevailed on him NOT to resign because there was serious doubt as who, if anyone, was legitimately next in line at the Justice Department. It fits the later narrative of the right-wing Bork to depict him as a willing Nixon stooge, but that was not the case.

According to The New York Times’s 1987 account of those events, Bork apparently considered the firing of Cox to be a question of legal authority, whereas Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned because of moral, not legal, concerns. But as another reader, Randy, points out, acting on principle can also be good politics:

As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest an article about what happens to politicians that bite the bullet and do what’s right for the country, not their party. Howard Baker and others, for example, became heroes. Did any of the Republicans that turned on Nixon lose?

David Frum is worried it will happen under President Trump. “The fancy term is authoritarian kleptocracy,” Frum says in a long and enriching talk with Atlantic editor Scott Stossel last Thursday about the dangers of the Trump administration (starting at the 10:22 mark):

The SoundCloud audio version is here. And if you haven’t yet read David’s cover story on Trump, or want to read it again in light of this discussion, here’s the link. If you prefer to listen to it on the go or while doing chores around the house, here’s the audio version:

This reader really liked the piece:

I’d just add a philosophical aspect, which is that if Obama was our first black president, then Trump is our first postmodern president. In postmodernity all truth is local, thus if you deconstruct any attempt at claiming an overarching truth, you’ll find a power grab.

This particularly applies to Trump’s relation with the media. If the media calls out one of his lies, it is seen by him and his supporters as not truth but a competing narrative—or, in today’s terms, #FakeNews. And so Trump has weaponized language, and any attempts at restraining him through shaming, appeals to tradition, and appeals to logic fall flat.

Governor Jerry Brown of California got Twitter-verse attention for saying two days ago that if Donald Trump shuts down satellite collection of climate data, “California will launch its own damn satellites.”

I’ve now seen the short speech from which that line was taken, thanks to a tip from reader CS. It’s remarkable enough to be worth your time. It’s a genuine fighting speech, with a tone that is resolute but positive, rather than resentful or doomed. It’s a rousing call-to-battle against the environmental backwardness and larger disdain for fact of the coming era, from a person who as he nears age 80 has struck a distinctive Happy Warrior tone of resistance. Happy, in its confidence. Warrior, in its resoluteness.

The 13-minute clip of an obviously extemporized speech is below, followed by a viewer’s-guide annotation:

Points to note:

  • Brown is speaking to the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco two days ago. As reader CS says, this is “probably the largest single yearly gathering of geophysics related scientists in the world; close to 25,000 people attended it this year.” Brown’s remarks begin at around time 2:00, and you’ll see that he swings right from the introductory applause into a call for renewed energy on behalf of fact-based policies, science, truth.
  • From about time 3:30 to 3:50, the sound on the video fades away. Just wait it out.
  • From 4:30 to 5:15, Brown begins one of his “we’re ready to fight” riffs. The speech as a whole is unpolished, but among its charms is Brown’s ability to seem self-aware and even self-mocking. An example is in this passage: First he says that Big Tobacco was brought down by a combination of scientists and lawyers. Then, “And in California, we’ve got plenty of lawyers! … We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight!”
  • At 5:30, he introduces the “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Brown? You’re not a country” argument, about the way California has used its technical advances and sheer scale to set national and even international environmental standards. “We have a lot of firepower! We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the universities. We have the national labs. We have a lot of political clout and sophistication for the battle. And we will persevere!
  • From 7:00 to 7:15, the defiantly confident declaration: “We’ll set the stage. We’ll set the example. And whatever Washington thinks they’re doing, California is the future!”
  • At time 8:00, Brown makes an offhand reference to “Breitbart, and the other clowns.” In the following minute and onward in the speech, he increasingly stresses the need for reality, fact, “honest science,” truth.
  • My favorite part of the talk starts at 8:30, when Brown embraces a role that long ago he seemed to resist: that of a consummate politician, who knows both the nobility and the squalor of his business as intimately as anyone still performing on the national stage. This was the theme that fascinated me when I was writing my profile of Brown for the magazine three years ago. During Brown’s first incarnation as California’s governor, when in his 30s he seemed to resist the craft of politics into which he had been born. During his second stint, when in his 70s he is the oldest person ever to be California’s governor, he has fully embraced the importance and the value of political skill. You get a distilled version of how he feels about politics in this brief passage,  through time 9:20.
  • Starting at 10:00, the “our own damn satellites” riff. It also has a great “Governor Moonbeam” cameo.
  • At 10:50, a similarly defiant stance about how Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and the rest of California’s science establishment will stand proudly against a fake-science, no-truth trend. If you’ve watched this far, stay through the “we can take a few data bases more” punchline.
  • Time 11:55, “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future. And you [the climate scientists in the AGU crowd] are the foot soldiers of change and understanding and scientific collaboration.”
  • Time 13:00, a nice in-your-face challenge to Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas had urged California companies to move to his lower-tax state. It ends with, “Rick, we’ve got more sun than you have oil, and we’re going to use it!”
  • Brown’s talk ends by time 15:45, following a “scientists of the world, unite!” pitch. I think that nearly every part of it is novel enough, in the current political world, to deserve a look.

This is one of the first speeches of the Resistance era that actually makes me feel better.

White nationalism, no. But I could go for some Brown nationalism of this sort.

I have a soft spot for Rick Perry, finding his aw-shucks demeanor more natural-seeming than most politicians’. I can even remember the time, in the summer and fall of 2011, when Perry seemed the strongest Republican challenger to Barack Obama for the 2012 race. The reasoning back then: like George W. Bush before him, Perry was an affable-seeming, popular incumbent governor of an important state. Also like Bush, he was unusual among Republicans in maintaining broad Latino support without alienating immigration-hardliners in his own party.

Then came the Republican-primary debate of November 9, 2011, when Perry had his extended “Ooops!” brain-freeze. If you’ve forgotten the episode, Perry had promised to eliminate three whole federal cabinet departments. But when he tried to name them, he got through two (the Departments of Commerce and Education) but couldn’t come up with the third, not even after checking his notes and thinking about it.

If you haven’t gone back to see this moment in a while, it’s worth another look, in the clip below. Perry actually takes his on-stage embarrassment with good humor. Still, it is as agonizing a 60-second stretch as you’re likely ever to see in a live debate. And, as I remarked during the Time Capsule series, it was the sort of gaffe that back in the pre-Trump age could de-rail an otherwise promising candidacy, as it appeared to do to Perry’s.

Again, I find Perry more appealing as a person than some of the other characters now coming onto the national stage. But it is somehow an appropriate metaphor of our era that, if he is nominated and confirmed, this could be the sequence of U.S. Secretaries of Energy:

  • 2009-2013, Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab;
  • 2013-2017, Ernest Moniz, professor of nuclear physics at MIT, former under secretary of Energy;
  • 2017- , Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember the department’s name.

Long-time reader Jim Elliott suspects she will be:

I just read the news that Carly Fiorina was summoned to Trump Tower. Carly Fiorina as Director of National Intelligence? Her only job qualification is having hired private investigators to spy on her board members while at HP!

I’m curious: Why is no one I’ve seen in the press calling these interviews what they are: summonses to come worship Trump on his throne. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry [Update: picked for Energy], Carly Fiorina ... these are all people who spoke ill of Trump, who refused to endorse him or failed to do so in a timely manner. These job interviews are nothing more than the politics of personal humiliation. President-elect Trump is basking in their subjugation and eager to watch them fawn and slobber over his ego in the hopes of reaping a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that they’ll never actually get. This is the act of a petty man, a child holding court on a playground.

In contrast, what did Obama do after barely beating Hillary Clinton in a long and bitter primary battle in 2008? He made her secretary of state, of course—fourth in line for the presidency. Romney didn’t fare as well in his bid for Foggy Bottom:

Muh names reek @mememojiapp

A photo posted by Shithead Steve ™ (@shitheadsteve) on

Another reader, Dave, fears Obama might be next:

I’m sure you read the “dominatrix” Daily Beast article this weekend. I think the writer is spot on regarding Trump’s character and the basis of his recent actions—parading ex-competitors in to kiss the ring only to be humiliated by being passed over.

Here’s a despairing email from a “U.S. Marine who has done multiple tours both in Iraq and Afghanistan since I joined the service in 2006, and I have never been more concerned for my country”:

Fallows recently asked whether Donald Trump was a flagrant liar or can he not tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. The scary answer is he doesn’t care what’s true or not, and more importantly, the only thing that matters is himself and how he feels. This is terrifying, because we now have an emotionally unstable man as president who constantly needs attention and is willing to say or do anything to get the attention he feels he deserves.

The United States has fallen into a state of utter political nihilism, where there is no limit to what one party can say or do in order to achieve and maintain power. Worse, there is no meaning other than political theater behind it. The consequences of this political nihilism will be catastrophic and will reverberate down through the decades of the 21st century. If you doubt this, think of climate change, the global economy, and U.S foreign policy concerning NATO and other strategic alliances. Be afraid, be very afraid!

Another reader absorbs the latest:

After reading the latest cycle on the CIA report reaction [“Former Acting CIA Director Calls Russian Interference In Election ‘The Political Equivalent Of 9/11’”], I just finally understood a grim truth: President-elect Trump’s fear that any hint about election manipulation decreasing his sense of grandeur is greater than his concern about the role and process of elections in general. I say grandeur because he won the election, so his grasp is not tenuous; he is defending prestige alone, and that his pride could outweigh his concern for the engine of democracy is a grim truth indeed.

This next reader draws an analogy to, well, a Grimm tale:

Trump has no loyalties. He only wants to be POTUS because he can’t get any richer and see it mean anything. He can’t get any more famous. What else is there? He’s like the wife in “The Fisherman and His Wife.” In the end, she wanted to be God.

Another long-time reader, John, comments on Fallows’s latest note—which points out the plain reality that Trump’s victory was not the historic landslide he keeps claiming it to be:

I’m willing to bet that Trump knows his Electoral College margin was tiny. I’m willing to bet that he knows that there weren’t three million illegitimate voters. I’m willing to bet that he knows Russia was trying to help him. He’s not concerned with facts or evidence; he’s focused on framing the story for his followers. Fact-checking, shmact-checking—that’s something the MSM does and elites care about. Trump is tweeting bald-faced lies to give his followers cover, to give them something they can believe that won’t reduce their faith in him.

Trump and his people play by the reality TV rules. All that’s required is a plausible facade, while we expect adherence to actual facts. How pathetic are we? All that Trump’s followers want is a powerful fiction, something they can sink their teeth into, something with which to taunt us college-educated Atlantic readers. “Oh, you went to college, and you read all those books and took all those science classes, and you got A’s on your report cards? Big whoop, because now all that stuff you learned is meaningless! Facts don’t matter. Our man Donald makes it all up as he goes along, and we love him for it.” They love that we get so frustrated by Trump’s dissembling. The bigger the lie, the more they love The Donald.

Another reader, Jay, also tackles the “landslide” canard—but from the perspective of the popular vote:

Two points occurred to me this week that have not been raised anywhere in media that I have seen:

1. There are many discussion of the popular vote. Clinton’s lead over Trump is now 2.7 million votes. And it is often described this way [by New York’s Jonathan Chait]: “As votes continue to be tabulated in the days since the presidential election, Donald Trump’s deficit continues to grow (now at 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent of the total), while the imagined scale of his triumph continues to swell.”

But no one has pointed out that 7.6 million people voted for third parties. So the number of people who did not vote for Trump is now 73.1 million, compared to the 62.8 million who voted for him. So really, Trump lost the popular vote by 10.3 million. The vote was 54 percent against Trump to 46 percent for. I think it is worth pointing that out. It is also a better description of the potential size of the opposition to his policies.

Kellyanne Conway, on Donald Trump’s “blowout” win

As I mentioned in this post in late November, and in this followup, and also in a discussion with Diane Rehm on her new podcast series yesterday, Donald Trump’s lies differ from those we have encountered from other national figures, even Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their respective impeachments. The difference is that Trump seemingly does not care that evidence is immediately at hand to disprove what he says. If he believes what he’s saying, at least in that moment, why shouldn’t we?

For the record, the latest entry of this sort is the repeated insistence by Trump and his associates that he won a “landslide” or “major” victory. For instance, this was his transition team’s response to reports of Russian attempts to swing the election in his favor:

“Now time to move on.”

Translation: “A long time ago” is actually one month, and “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” is actually one of the least impressive. Here are the facts:

  • In terms of his Electoral College margin, which will probably end up at 306 to 232, Trump will rank #46 among the 58 presidential elections that have been held, or just above the bottom 20%.
  • In terms of his popular vote margin, Trump will probably end up with the third-worst popular vote result ever, or if you prefer 56th ranked of the 58 winning candidates in history. (Obviously the 58 elections have produced 45 presidents, some of them winning two terms and FDR winning four.) This ranking is based on Trump’s losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a little more than 2 percent, or a little less than 3 million votes. John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote by 10 percent in 1824 to Andrew Jackson, and also came in second in the electoral vote—but became president when the race went to the House, since none of the four candidates had an Electoral College majority. He is #58 out of 58, in terms of popular-vote mandate for winners. Rutherford B. Hayes, who won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by 3 percent to Samuel Tilden in 1876, is #57. Donald Trump, losing by 2 percent, is #56. Every president except J.Q. Adams and Hayes came to office with a stronger popular-vote mandate than Trump.

None of this changes the fact that Trump ended up ahead in this year’s electoral vote. But the next time you hear Trump, his campaign managers, his transition team, or anyone else call this a “landslide” or “one of the biggest victories ever,” remember the numbers. This is 46th out of 58 in electoral college terms, and 56th out of 58 in the popular vote.

***

Here is the embed for my discussion yesterday with Diane Rehm:

That quote comes from an Atlantic reader referring to the blistering roast that President Obama gave Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner in response to The Donald’s deplorable Birther campaign deployed a few months earlier. That mockery of the reality TV host was wholly satisfying to watch (and just as skilled as Colbert’s professional takedown of Bush in 2006) … but was it wise? Did Obama’s public humiliation of a vengeful narcissist set the ball in motion for Trump’s presidential campaign—a campaign less about the presidency and more about proving Obama and the laughing media elites wrong?

That’s the premise of The Choice 2016, Frontline’s superb documentary. The key portion:

With that in mind, here are three reader emails that Fallows forwarded me to post in his stead. (Accordingly I’ve changed them from second-person to third-person.) The first reader writes:

I’m a huge fan of Fallows, but I disagree with his latest note, pushing President Obama to denounce President-elect Trump. Fallows asked, “What the hell does [Obama] have to lose?” I think the answer is clear.

As many commentators have noted, Donald Trump’s principal principle is to listen to people who flatter him and reject people who offend him. Barack Obama, it seems clear, has decided that his best influence on the next four years is to stay on Donald’s good side—to convince him, as Obama apparently did in their Oval Office meeting, that Obamacare needs reform, not repeal; and perhaps to convince Trump to maintain other positive aspects of the Obama legacy.

Obama attacking Trump at this point will cause Trump to attack Obama and the policies of the Obama administration. It would feel good for liberals (including me!), but the real-world consequences could be terrible. All of the attacks on Trump from mainstream media and politicians did not keep him from the presidency. Now that Trump will be president, Obama is trying to maintain a relationship and thereby some sway in Trump’s decision-making.

So what does Obama have to lose? His policies, his legacy, and his chance at influencing the next president.

This next reader is on the same page:

I have to disagree with the notion that Obama should do more and be more visible right now.

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference in a packed White House press briefing room on November 14, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

In the four weeks since the election, which seem like four centuries, Donald Trump has dominated the news and done real strategic and economic damage with his stream of intemperate tweets. For a reckoning of the chaos that his tweets about Taiwan and China have already induced, please see these Atlantic items: by Uri Friedman with Shen Dengli, by David Graham, by Chris Bodenner, and by Isaac Stone Fish, with links to many other analyses. The harm he petulantly inflicted today on Boeing, a company that is perennially the United States’s leading exporter and one of its most important high-tech manufacturing employers and standard-setters, is only the latest and most flagrant illustration.

This is not responsible behavior. This is not normal. This is not something the United States, or for that matter the world, can really withstand from a commander in chief. But this ungoverned, thin-skinned impetuosity is something the “responsible” GOP has decided, to its enduring shame, that it dare not criticize.

One other thing is true of Trump’s destructive outbursts. They come from a person who does not yet exercise any official power. The American-democratic principle of peaceful transfer of power includes the tenet that the United States has only one president at a time. And for the next 44-plus days, that president is Barack Obama.

As president, Obama has often been at his best in moments of national trauma, stress, or confidence-destroying emergency. I am thinking, for example, of one of  his very greatest speeches: his “Amazing Grace” eulogy and exhortation after the gun massacre last year in Charleston, South Carolina.

Our current exposure to Donald Trump is a moment that even experienced Republicans will say—carefully off the record—represents a confidence-destroying emergency. (How do I know this? Like most reporters, I have heard first-hand—but of course not from anyone willing to be quoted. This is the party of Lincoln.) A man whose temperament makes him manifestly unfit to command the vast military, surveillance, investigative, and enforcement powers of the U.S. government stands mere weeks away from assuming that command.

There is nothing Barack Obama can do about the transition scheduled for January 20. But in the meantime he is the president, and he needs to be present— and visible, and heard from. So far he has been deferential to a fault, letting the chaos emanating from Trump’s Android phone disrupt markets and alliances. His latest major press conference was on November 14, more than three weeks ago. (Trump, of course, has not held a press conference since the election, and none at all since July.)

Obama’s lowkey approach is no doubt an extension of his statesmanlike invitation to meet Trump just after the election, and their strained handshake at the White House. It’s in keeping with “no drama Obama.” He has never been known for seeking confrontations.

But if he thinks that America stands for values different from Trump’s daily outbursts, if he thinks the institutions of the country can survive the tantrums of the man scheduled to control them, if he thinks democratic norms and limits deserve defense, if he thinks the United States can find a steady path in the world despite a most unsteady leader—and we assume that Obama believes all these things, and may even have thoughts about the path forward—then let’s start hearing from him. Why not another press conference tomorrow? And then one a week after that. And then maybe we’ll all take a week off for Christmas and Hanukkah—but other presidents have given post-holiday greetings, and he could too. And remember hearing about Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest speech, his farewell address, three days before John Kennedy was sworn in? As his next rhetorical target, Obama could set for himself the goal of topping that to give the most-influential ever farewell address.

Everything Barack Obama has stood for, Donald Trump—not yet in office—is doing his best to discredit. For the next 44 days, Obama will still be the most powerful person on Earth, so he might as well sound that way. Remind us of what the country is, what it should stand for, how it can find a steady path ahead.

As the current saying goes: What the hell does he have to lose?