The blog has been heavily Trump-centric today, but what can you do? When it rains, it pours. This evening brings us yet another story based on dozens of interviews with Trump's closest advisors, most of whom are apparently willing to make their boss look like a doofus.

But tonight's piece is actually about Steve Bannon, the slovenly, hardline Cardinal Richelieu of the White House who hates illegal immigrants and is working in the long-term to foment a final showdown between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East. He's at war with factions in the West Wing who don't especially share his zealotry, and Trump himself suggested this week that his position was a little dicey:

The president’s comments were described by White House officials as a dressing-down and warning shot, though one Bannon friend, reflecting on them Wednesday, likened Bannon to a terminally ill family member who had been moved into hospice care.

....Bannon’s supporters believe he is an essential conduit between Trump and his nationalist, populist base. The wealthy Mercer family, which has nurtured Bannon’s political rise and infused Trump’s campaign and allied groups with millions of dollars, is closely monitoring Bannon’s falling fortunes. Rebekah Mercer, who directs the family’s political activities, is unnerved and worried about losing her best link to a president her family takes credit for helping get elected but believes Bannon will be able to maintain his influence, people close to the family said.

....As tensions have heightened in recent weeks, the Bannon and Kushner camps have devolved into opposing firing squads. Team Bannon believes the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a show the president watches regularly, are speaking regularly with Kushner and projecting his anti-Bannon sentiments. Kushner allies, meanwhile, finger Bannon as responsible for unflattering stories involving the president’s son-in-law, including those focusing on Kushner’s talks with Russians.

There are factions in every White House, but Trump's factions sound far more like a bunch of squabbling first-graders than most. "You've been bad-mouthing me to Joe!" "Yeah, well, who leaked that Russia stuff to the Times?"

Unfortunately, the story ends with this:

For Trump, one bright spot was the decision to launch 59 missiles in Syria last week. The president was pleased with the process, overseen by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, that brought together his war cabinet and corralled its expertise in a way that resembled a more traditional White House.

“He’s in the best place that I’ve seen him since the inauguration,” Barrack said. “He’s confident. He thinks he’s found the groove, and with his team too. . . . He looks great. His energy level is off the map. And I think he now feels the commander in chief role.

Great. It would be nice to have a president who felt terrible about launching missiles, even if he felt that it had to be done. But not Trump. It was the only bright spot in his week.

There's so much to learn in the world. A couple of days ago, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services issued this statement regarding CSR subsidies for Obamacare:

The New York Times report is inaccurate. The administration is currently deciding its position on this matter. We have not been contacted by Democrats to help save Obamacare, perhaps because they consider Obamacare to be a losing cause. Democrats need to help solve this failed Obamacare plan.

That sounded really aggressive for an agency statement, and I was a little surprised. How had they picked up the Trump style and rhythm so perfectly? Today I learned the answer via Politico:

Two administration officials said the HHS rebuttal was personally ordered by an incensed Trump, who feared that the Times story hurt his negotiating position. Trump took the unusual step of calling HHS Secretary Tom Price to dictate a blistering statement that challenged the story and swiped at Democrats, one senior administration official said.

Today Trump made his position even clearer. Insurers will most likely pull out of the exchanges or jack up premiums if CSR payments are halted, and Trump said explicitly that he was willing to do this if Democrats didn't come to the table. I'm not a world-class negotiator or anything, but isn't it sort of unusual to talk openly about your threat to personally blow up Obamacare unless Dems knuckle under? That makes it hard to subsequently blame Democrats, doesn't it?

In other news, I'm not the only one who's been learning new things. A few weeks ago Trump announced that health care was a lot more complicated than he had thought, and today he explained that Chinese President Xi Jinping schooled him on North Korea too:

Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”

This is probably something I would have kept to myself, but maybe that's wrong. I suppose Trump is setting a good example by showing that you're never too old to listen and learn.

What else? There was this:

That was quick! Hooray for NATO! However, it's unclear what produced this change of heart. Was it the influence of H.R. McMaster? The alleged Russian collusion in Syria's use of chemical weapons? Or did the NSA pick up some sigint of Vladimir Putin mocking Trump?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal today, Trump also said he's changed his mind and now supports the Export-Import bank. He's also thinking about reappointing Janet Yellen as chair of the Fed. And this:

Asked how he has changed since taking office, the former businessman—who as a candidate touted his ability to cut deals—said: “The magnitude of everything is so big, and also the decisions are so big. You know, you’re talking about life and death. You’re not talking about ‘you’re going to make a good deal.’”

Huh. The presidency isn't just about making good deals. Since that was basically Trump's sole alleged qualification for the office, I wonder what role he now thinks he's going to play?

Lunchtime Photo

Baby Canada Geese are coming our way here in Irvine, but only if Mama Goose can keep her nest warm and protected. Yesterday, a villainous maintenance man in a motorboat swung by with the obvious intent of stealing her eggs. But she knew how to foil his fiendish plot: get up on a rock and honk loudly at him. It worked. He sped away, terror-stricken at the prospect of continued honking.

Here she is making her way back down to her nest. It turns out that webbed feet are not so good at scaling rocks, so she ended up sort of half-flying down. Then, after moving a few feathers from one side to another and squooshing around a bit to get comfortable, she settled down to a serene morning of eggsitting.

Philip Howard attended Tuesday's infrastructure confab with President Trump. The Guardian reports on what he told them:

Donald Trump is considering privatising America’s airports and dams as part of an infrastructure building programme that could exceed past estimates of a trillion dollars....“America can do much more than it has, and can do what other countries in Europe and Australia have done, by harnessing private capital,” Howard said. “So it could privatise a number of assets such as airports and dams, and get a lot of capital from that, as well as increase the tax base.”

Hundreds of airports around the world have been privatised or partly privatised but, Howard noted, virtually none in America....Last year the Cato Institute, a conservative thinktank, published a paper that endorsed privatising the nation’s more than 500 commercial airports, which are currently owned by state and local governments and rely on the federal government for capital improvements.

Is Trump really thinking about this? Who knows. But I'm a little mystified. The federal government can't privatize airports that are owned by states and cities. And even if it could, states and cities would get the money. So what's the point?

I'd say Trump had four big domestic priorities when he took office:

  • Repeal Obamacare.
  • Cut taxes for the rich.
  • Spend $1 trillion fixing roads and bridges.
  • Build a wall.

The Obamacare effort has already crashed and burned. His tax plan apparently won't work with Obamacare in place, so now he's delaying that to take another run at health care. He doesn't have anywhere near enough support for his infrastructure plan, which is why he's desperately scanning the horizon for weird ideas to fund it. And the wall hasn't gone anywhere yet. It may yet make progress, but even Trump admits it won't cover anything close to the whole border.

On foreign policy, he's crashed and burned on his immigration plan; reversed himself on Russia; launched a strike on Syria with no apparent follow-up plan; still has no proposal for defeating ISIS; caved in to China on Taiwan; and has gone soft on trade.

So what has he done? He's signed a few bills reversing some Obama executive orders, but that's about over since the easy stuff has an early May deadline. He produced a kinda-sorta budget, which was even deader on arrival than most presidential budgets.  He managed to pick a name off a list and nominate him to the Supreme Court, something he apparently considers a helluva hard day's work. Beyond that, he's tweeted, convened some "listening sessions," held a couple of rallies, watched uncounted hours of TV, played lots of golf, and generally developed a reputation as the laziest president in anyone's memory. Is there anything important I'm missing here?

On Fox Business this morning, President Trump said he's not done with health care after all. In fact, he wants to take another swing at TrumpCare before he tackles tax cuts for the rich. Just for the record, then, here is what Trump's domestic and foreign policy has looked like over the past two months:

March

  1. NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever. It must be uprooted and fundamentally reformed.
  2. China needs to stop screwing us on trade and North Korea or they're in big trouble.
  3. We're committed to good relations with Russia.
  4. Assad can stay in power. We don't really care.
  5. Health care is dead, time to move on to taxes.

April

  1. We have a few modest changes we'd like to make to NAFTA.
  2. We had a pleasant meeting with Xi. It would be nice if they helped out with North Korea.
  3. Russia's actions in the Ukraine, its interference with our elections, and its backing of Assad are intolerable.
  4. Assad is a monster who has to go.
  5. We're going to try again on health care before we get to taxes.

FFS, does Trump have any idea at all what he wants to do? On health care, I gather that somebody explained to him yet again why tax cuts for billionaires will be procedurally easier if they gut health care first. So now he's on board with taking another run at it. I suppose that he'll forget the explanation shortly, though, and make yet another U-turn until someone explains it again.

I dunno. The first few twists in this show were entertaining, but the writers are getting lost lately. In just the past few episodes they've given us an EPA administrator who wants additional security to protect him from his own employees; a press secretary whose can-you-top-this bloopers now include a defense of Hitler; a fresh-faced son-in-law they don't quite know what to do with; and a president who's ready to go to war because of what he sees on Fox News. I like quirky characters as much as the next guy, but this is getting to be a little much.

I'm getting answers to all sorts of nagging sports questions this month. Earlier I learned that, as I've long suspected, intentional fouling virtually never works in the final seconds of a basketball game. Today, Jared Diamond writes about the windup used by baseball pitchers, which has always puzzled me:

This spring, Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg asked a simple question that threatens to upend more than a century of baseball tradition: Why should he pitch one way with nobody on base, and another way with runners aboard? After all, he threw just as hard from the stretch as he did from the full windup, but with improved precision.

Strasburg did some research and embarked on an experiment. He ditched the windup and plans to work exclusively from the stretch this season, beginning his delivery facing third base instead of home plate. Pitchers usually deploy the stretch—a quicker, more compact delivery than the full windup—with runners on base to prevent base-stealers.

I'm not a pitcher, obviously, but I've never understood the weird, arms-over-the-head windup. In most sports, it's a given that a simple, smooth motion is the best way to engage the kinetic chain, improve consistency, and throw/shoot/serve/etc. with maximum accuracy. Among quarterbacks or tennis players, for example, even small hitches in the delivery motion are mercilessly trained away by good coaches. But in baseball, an enormous hitch is not only not trained away, it's encouraged.

I guess I always figured there must be a reason that I just didn't understand. But maybe not. Maybe it's just the way things have always been done. In any case, I applaud Strasburg. Pitching from the stretch should work fine, and it should improve performance with runners on base too since no delivery change is required. I wish him a great season except when he's pitching against the Dodgers.

Michael Goodwin asked President Trump if he still had confidence in Steve Bannon. Here's what he said:

I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late....I’m my own strategist.

Bravo! The usual schtick in DC is to swear undying support for someone right up until the moment you stick a shiv in his gut. This is an improvement. I look forward to further candid assessments of his own team from President Trump.

Farhad Manjoo says that airline travel sucks and Silicon Valley has made it even worse:

Travel search engines rank airlines based on price rather than friendliness or quality of service. Online check-in, airport kiosks and apps allow airlines to serve customers with fewer and fewer workers. What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism — one concerned with prices and profits above all else, with little regard for quality of service, for friendliness, or even for the dignity of customers.

....What keeps deteriorating are comfort and quality of service for low-end passengers (i.e., most people). Legroom keeps shrinking. Airlines keep tacking on separate fees for amenities we used to consider part of the flight. And customers keep going along with it.

Consumers have shown that they’re willing to put up with an awful lot, including lack of legroom, lack of amenities, mediocre or worse customer service, dirty airplanes and more to save money,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “And the airline industry has evolved to meet that desire” for cheap fares

I'll give Silicon Valley a pass on this. The flying public has demonstrated conclusively that it cares about only one thing: price. Airlines do their best to charge high prices when they can—usually for late bookings or on routes where they have a monopoly—but most of the time they can't. So they've done everything they can to lower their prices. It's either that or die.

Nor is it just airlines. Manjoo complains that the whole system of buying an airline ticket is "mercilessly transactional" thanks to tech, but that's a broad trend. Even the tech companies he celebrates, like Uber and Airbnb, are pretty damn transactional. They aren't quite up there with airlines, but their single biggest selling point is that they're cheaper than taxis and hotels. (You think Uber is popular because it's faster and more convenient? It is. But if price weren't its paramount feature, Uber wouldn't continue to lose billions of dollars subsidizing fares.)

I've long thought that one of the problems with air travel is the lack of a credible signaling system. If, say, American Airlines was 10 percent more expensive than other carriers, it might be able to make that stick if it truly offered better service. But how do you convince customers of this? You'd have to realign the entire company around service and then spend 20 years building up a reputation. There's no other way. But who's willing to risk the life and death of a huge corporation (probably death, let's be honest) on a 20-year experiment?

So flying sucks because we, the customers, have made it clear that we don't care. We love to gripe, but we just flatly aren't willing to pay more for a better experience. Certain individuals (i.e., the 10 percent of the population over six feet tall) are willing to pay for legroom. Some are willing to pay more for extra baggage. Some are willing to pay more for a window seat. But most of us aren't. If the ticket price on We Care Airlines is $10 more, we click the link for Suck It Up Airlines. We did the same thing before the web too. As usual, the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

With "involuntary deplanings" in the news, Nate Silver points us to some data that's oddly intriguing. Here's how often passengers are kicked off flights on the Big Four airlines in the United States. It comes via the Department of Transportation's latest monthly report:

Delta overbooks at a higher rate than any other airline. However, it uses an innovative Coasian auction system during check-in to persuade passengers on overbooked flights to give up their seats for cash payouts. As a result, it has by far the lowest rate of forcing people off of flights even when they don't want to go.

By contrast, Southwest—which has been taunting United over the Dr. Dao incident—has an average rate of overbooking, but apparently a pretty crappy system for handling overbooked flights. This gives them highest rate of forced deplanings.

United, ironically, isn't bad on this score. Their overbooking rate is about average, and their "involuntary deplanings" rate is quite low. Depending on how you feel about things, Delta would probably be your first choice on the overbooking front, but United is a solid second.

Like it or not, about 40,000 people a year are kicked off planes against their will. Some of them were standby passengers who knew this might happen. Some weren't. Given those numbers, the interesting thing isn't that United had to remove one of these folks by force. The interesting thing is that apparently it's never happened before.1

1It hasn't happened while cell phones were recording the whole thing, anyway.

UPDATE: The original version of the chart in this post was an epic fail. I transcribed the numbers wrong, then corrected them, then had to recover from an Excel failure, and then didn't notice that the recovery didn't quite work. Then I used the wrong units for the y-axis. Plus the sun was in my eyes.

Anyway, it's fixed now. And the good news is that the corrected numbers don't really change the story. But at least now they're correct.

Sean Spicer put his foot in it today over Syria. You can google the details if you want, but basically he used the words Hitler and gas in the same sentence, and you just know that's not going to end well.

Instead, let's turn to the next generation of Trumps:

Eric Trump has said he is "sure" his sister Ivanka used her influence over their father to encourage the US president to launch military action against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

...."A lot of times people will say yes just because you happen to be the boss," he explained at the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Ayrshire. “I think the beautiful thing about family is you play on a little bit of a different dynamic and once in a while you can pull them aside and say: ‘No disrespect but you might want to think about this or maybe you crossed the line here.’

“I think it gives you a sounding board who is a little bit more unconventional than the 37 people that might happen to be standing round a table at that one time who just want to appease.

I'm sure Trump's staff will be delighted to hear themselves described this way.

And I'm pretty sure Eric is wrong anyway. First off, my guess is that virtually everyone in and out of the West Wing was in favor of bombing Syria. Hell, even most Democrats were in favor of bombing Syria. I very much doubt that Ivanka's deep maternal instincts ("Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence") made her a unique moral influence in this case.

Second, those 37 people Eric talks about aren't "appeasing" his dad. They're mostly very clever, very experienced people who are manipulating his dad. They do this because that's what people in the West Wing always do, and they have an easier time of it than most because Donald Trump is so childishly easy to manipulate. We all saw Hillary Clinton do it in the debates, practically sending up semaphore flags as she baited him, and you could tell that even Trump understood what she was doing. But he responded exactly as she wanted him to anyway. It was pretty astonishing to watch. Too bad about that whole James Comey thing.