Sometimes, small incidents shed a lot of light. As evidence, take this week’s odd spectacle involving President Trump, Hurricane Dorian, the state of Alabama and one black Sharpie.
No lives lost, no policies overturned or longstanding norms undermined, this was not the most consequential of Trump controversies. But the weeklong, three-act mini-drama highlighted central elements of the president’s personality and how his White House operates.
ACT 1 - THE GATHERING STORM
As so often with Trump, the action began with a tweet: “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
The reference to Alabama was inaccurate -- whatever small chance the storm had of crossing the Florida peninsula and hitting the Gulf Coast had gone away at least a day earlier, as the National Hurricane Center’s forecasts made clear.
Twenty minutes after Trump’s tweet, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham, Ala., station sent out its own Twitter message to set the record straight and reassure Alabama residents that they were safe from a fearsome storm. “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east,” the tweet said, not mentioning Trump.
Despite that correction, Trump repeated a warning to Alabama that afternoon in televised remarks from a Federal Emergency Management Agency briefing.
ACT 2 - THE TV HOUR
There, the entire matter might have ended -- a minor presidential mistake in the midst of a very large hurricane -- but for the other essential ingredient in almost every Trump saga: Television.
On Monday, an otherwise quiet Labor Day, ABC correspondent Jon Karl did a report from the White House that hit two of Trump’s sore spots.
Karl noted Trump’s error and the weather service’s message: “He also misstated the storm’s possible trajectory,” Karl said, and the weather service “corrected the president.”
But what may have really set off the president’s ire was Karl’s noting that Trump had canceled a trip to Poland he had been scheduled to take that weekend, ostensibly to monitor the hurricane, but had spent hours Monday playing golf at his Virginia country club.
Trump almost never admits having made an error, insists that he works hard despite his many hours away from the office, as Eli Stokols noted, and obsesses over his coverage on television despite his occasional public insistence that he doesn’t watch much.
To him, Karl’s report constituted a double slight. That evening, he returned to Twitter to denounce Karl as a “lightweight reporter” and express his grievance against the media. It was the first of what were eventually nine tweets over four days that kept alive a story that would otherwise almost surely have disappeared.
“It was in fact correct that Alabama could have received some ‘hurt.’ Always good to be prepared! But the Fake News is only interested in demeaning and belittling. Didn’t play my whole sentence or statement. Bad people!” he wrote.
ACT 3 -- CLOSING THE RING
Predictably, cable television jumped on the story. And predictably, Trump took the bait.
On Wednesday, the White House released a video in which Trump, in the Oval Office, displayed a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather map showing the Aug. 29 forecast track, in white, supplemented by what aides later conceded was a black line drawn with a Sharpie over southern Alabama.
“That was the original chart,” Trump said. “It could’ve -- was going towards the Gulf,” he said.
Late-night comics rejoiced.
Then, on Thursday, as Chris Megerian wrote, the White House dragged a Coast Guard flag officer into the fracas, issuing a statement from Rear Adm. Peter Brown, the White House homeland security and counter-terrorism advisor.
Brown carefully did not back up the president’s original statement that Alabama would “likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” but did say that the briefings he had given Trump “included the possibility of tropical storm force winds in southeastern Alabama.”
Next to the hurricane, itself, which has killed at least 30 people and caused massive damage, mostly in the Bahamas, all this was, literally, a side show. But several lessons emerge from it. One is Trump’s seeming inability to let go of any perceived slight, however trivial. A second is the apparent utter lack of anyone, either on the White House staff or among his informal advisors, who is either able or willing to restrain him.
Most presidents have flashes of temper in which they insist on doing something self-destructive. Nearly all have someone whose job, formally or informally, is to stop them.
Trump surrounded himself with such people early in his tenure, but he quickly bridled at being told no and at the public image that he was being managed. By now, he has succeeded in ridding himself of all of them. That could ultimately prove more costly to him than any hurricane.
BYPASSING THE COURTS
The Trump administration is increasingly fast-tracking Supreme Court appeals, David Savage reports. The moves by Solicitor General Noel Francisco are aimed at bypassing lower courts, where the administration often encounters skeptical judges, and getting cases directly before the high court, which has a majority of Republican appointees.
So far, the court’s majority has been willing to go along with that approach in some cases.
The latest test, Savage wrote, involves an administration policy, announced in July, that would shut down nearly all asylum claims on the southern border by requiring anyone crossing Mexican territory to apply for asylum in that country.
Opponents say that violates federal law, which gives people a right to claim asylum. A federal judge in California agreed, issuing an order blocking the policy. The administration has filed an emergency appeal asking the justices to reverse that order, bypassing the Court of Appeals. The justices likely will make a decision in the next couple of weeks.
SPECIAL ELECTION WATCH
Voters in southeastern North Carolina are already casting ballots in an intensely contested special election to fill a vacant seat in Congress. Normally, the Republican, Dan Bishop, would be a strong favorite to win this heavily Republican district, which stretches east from Charlotte’s suburbs. Trump carried the district by 12 points in 2016.
But polls from both sides have shown a close race between Bishop and the Democrat, Dan McCready. The difficulty of predicting turnout for a special election has been further complicated by Dorian’s impact on the region.
McCready ran last year and appeared to lose to the Republican candidate, Mark Harris. But a bipartisan panel of North Carolina officials refused to certify the results after extensive evidence of organized vote fraud by an operative working for Harris. They ordered a new election and Harris declined to run again.
Republicans have poured huge resources into the election, fearing that a loss could worsen the flood of GOP members of Congress deciding to quit rather than fight for reelection in 2020. Democrats, conversely, worry that a solid Bishop win would deflate their side.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both plan to visit the area before election day on Tuesday.
FRENEMIES AND WEALTHY DONORS
Four years ago, Joe Biden viewed Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a possible running mate; now they’re sparring, as Noah Bierman and Janet Hook reported in a close look at the history of the Biden-Warren relationship.
The two waged an epic fight for years over bankruptcy rules when Biden was a senator and Warren a Harvard Law School professor. But they’ve never cut ties, adding a layer of complexity to their current rivalry.
Many Democrats pledged that they would fund their presidential campaigns without big-dollar checks from the wealthy. But, as Evan Halper wrote, most have found that small donors don’t cut it. So it’s back to the rich for pretty much all the candidates other than Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
This was climate week on the campaign trail because of CNN’s seven-hour climate policy forum. As Melanie Mason reported, Sen. Kamala Harris released her $10-trillion plan to fight climate change.
The Democratic candidates largely agree on climate policy, embracing a set of plans that go far beyond what the Obama administration pushed. But the chance of getting most of those policies through the Senate, even if Democrats win a majority, looks slim.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly lost Michigan, a key state, in large part because of a lower-than-expected African American turnout. Tyrone Beason went to Detroit to listen to black voters talk about their message to 2020 Democrats: Don’t take us for granted.
When the Democrats debate Thursday in Houston, the candidates on stage will include one former vice president, five senators, a former Housing secretary, a former congressman, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Andrew Yang, who wants to give you $1,000 a month. Seema Mehta took a look at Yang and his signature issue.
In some key Senate races this year, the Democratic campaign committee has endorsed moderates. Some on the left have accused the committee of actively trying to hinder progressive candidates, Jennifer Haberkorn reports. The fight is the latest flashpoint in the tug of war between the party’s factions.
The administration is inching toward a significant pull-out from America’s longest war. As Doyle McManus wrote, the draft deal with the Taliban looks ugly, but it may be the best the U.S. can get to meet Trump’s goal of getting out of Afghanistan.
Diplomats with extensive experience in Afghanistan are skeptical of the plan being negotiated by Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
“Maybe it can work,” Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, told McManus. “Maybe we still live in the age of miracles.”
TROLLING IRAN, DISCLOSING SECRETS
An Iranian missile blew up on its launch pad in late August. The next day, Trump denied U.S. responsibility for the incident, which was curious since the Iranians hadn’t accused the U.S. of being behind it. But, as Megerian wrote, Trump went further, releasing a highly classified photo that showed the damage to the launch site.
Trump defended his action, noting that he has the legal right to declassify whatever he wants. But intelligence officials said that the public release of the photo disclosed the capability of U.S. spy cameras trained on Iran.
TRADE TALKS WITH CHINA
As Don Lee reported, China and the U.S. plan to resume trade talks in Washington in October. There’s not much sign of a breakthrough in the offing, but markets rallied on the news.
Meantime, as Lee wrote, the latest round of Trump’s tariffs on China took effect on Sept. 1. Unlike previous rounds, which mostly hit goods used by manufacturers, this one hit many consumer goods, making the impact more visible.
BUILDING THE WALL, TEARING DOWN ANTI-TERROR PROGRAMS
California escaped the brunt of Pentagon funding deferrals to pay for Trump’s border wall, as Alexa Diaz reported.
Many of the military construction programs that will be canceled or deferred to free money for the wall are in Puerto Rico and Guam, territories that don’t have a vote in Congress or presidential elections. But some swing states took a significant hit, including Arizona and North Carolina.
As David Willman reported in July, the administration has gutted some important anti-terrorism programs in the Homeland Security Department. Now, a bipartisan group of members of Congress wants an explanation.
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