Thursday, June 15, 2017

Humpty Trumpty

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master-that’s all.’” — Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

It does not take a serious student of the English language to recognize the similarity between the discussion that Alice and Humpty Dumpty had about the meaning of words used by Humpty Dumpty, to recognize that as ill-educated and ill-read as Humpty TRUmpty obviously is, in all probability someone read Through the Looking Glass to him when he was a child, and the idea of using words to mean what he wanted them to mean, rather than what they are generally accepted to mean, appealed to him has become an effective means of communicating with many of his supporters. It has also made life easy for him because it is not necessary for him to clutter up his mind with the actual meaning of words, since he, like Humpty Dumpty, is their master. Examples abound, but a few suffice to make the point.

One of DJT’s favorite uses of words is to pick a word to describe a situation that has no relevance to the situation. Notwithstanding its irrelevance, he broadcasts it widely by tweet, so those not sophisticated conclude that it means what DJT would have it mean, rather than what it would mean if appropriately used. If it is a big word, it gets additional weight and redounds to the credit of DJT. An example of this was given following James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. That testimony neither supporters of DJT, nor his critics, would describe as revealing DJT in a favorable light. Nonetheless, at its conclusion, DJT tweeted: “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication. . . and WOW, Comey is a leaker.” Whatever one thinks of Mr. Comey’s testimony, no one knowledgeable in the use of language would use the word “vindicate,” to describe its effect on DJT or his reputation.

Another use of the Humpty TRUmpty rule is to take a word out of a sentence used by a third party, and put it in a completely new sentence that has no relevance to the sentence from which it came and attribute the new sentence to the author of the original sentence. That occurred with something the Mayor of London said following the terrorist attack in London on June 2, 2016. Acknowledging the distress of the community, and wanting to reassure those in London that they would be safe, the mayor said that there would be a heavy police presence in the days ahead in London to protect the public, and that there was: “No need to be alarmed” because of their presence. DJT took the word “alarmed” from the mayor’s statement and put it in a tweet attacking the author of the statement, tweeting: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed.’”

Another application of the Humpty TRUmpty rule is to take a word and apply it to a situation, simply because it feels good to say, it even though taken in the context in which it is placed by DJT, it is meaningless. When DJT is confronted with a news story of which he disapproves, he describes it as a “fake” news story, even though the word “fake” has no commonly accepted use that would make it meaningful in the situation being described, nor does any definition found in a dictionary suggest that that usage is correct.

When the media discovers things that DJT had hoped to keep secret, he has a ready response. He refers to the “Lying Media” even though there is nothing in a story that comports with the accepted definition of “lying.” When the New York Times comes up with a story that displeases Humpty Trumpty, he uses the word “failing” to describe the newspaper even though that paper’s circulation has increased greatly since DJT was elected, and by no accepted definition of the word, could “failing” properly be applied to describe the New York Times.

The foregoing are just a few of hundreds of examples of the misuse of the language by DJT. It makes us wish we could follow in Alice’s footsteps after her conversation with Humpty Dumpty drew to a close: “Alice waited a minute to see if he [Humpty Dumpty] would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said ‘Good-bye!’ once more, and, getting no answer to this, she quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, ‘Of all the unsatisfactory —’ (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort to have such a long word to say) ‘of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met —’ She never finished the sentence, for at this moment a heavy crash shook the forest from end to end.” Humpty Dumpty had fallen from the wall. We should be so lucky.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Ethics? Trump?

Grub first: then ethics
— Bertolt Brecht, Three Penny Opera

It is a distinct pleasure to be the first columnist to disabuse a troubled American public of an easily understandable, but totally incorrect, belief in the meaning of a term that has entered the national conversation and caused consternation among political observers. The misunderstanding arises because of the use of the words “ethics,” and “Trump,” in the same sentence. That usage evokes, in the average citizen, a sense of disbelief that is difficult to set aside. Thus, it is not surprising that when there were headlines announcing the administration’s initial refusal to release dozens of “ethics waivers” for those serving in the administration, alarm bells were sounded by those who do not understand what is meant when an individual receives an “ethics waver.” The assumption made by those unfamiliar with the term, is that those who receive such waivers may, with impunity, act unethically whenever it suits them. That is, of course, not what such a waiver means, but the misunderstanding is understandable given the activities of the members of the Trump family since DJT assumed the throne. There are countless examples of DJT’s imperviousness to ethical matters and, citing the advice of his lawyers, he has consistently asserted that being president he can act unethically with complete impunity as well as immunity. Thus, as an example, DJT said that all profits received by his companies from foreign sources staying at his hotels, would be donated to charities so he would not profit from foreign governments patronizing his hotel. The Trump Organization has now said that for it to determine which guests’ payments would qualify as being from a foreign government would be impractical and violate the guests’ rights to privacy. As a result, DJT gets to keep the profits. With respect to DJT’s family, ethical questions are regularly posed by his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, whose financial ties are of amazing complexity and pose all sorts of potential for conflicts of interest that, given their general insensitivity to such matters, are destined to remain in the news so long as they remain in the White House.

The important thing for readers to understand, is that an “ethical waiver” does not mean that those obtaining them are given license to behave in an unethical manner the way the Trump clan can. The use of the phrase must be understood in the context of the executive order that was signed by DJT on January 28, 2017, eight days after he assumed office. It was called “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Appointees.” It is an impressive document that contains more than 3100 words. The first three paragraphs address exactly the same thing three different ways, which proves how terribly important the obligations imposed by those three paragraphs are. The first and third paragraphs say anyone appointed to an executive agency agrees to a 5-year restriction on lobbying activities when that individual’s employment in that agency ends. The second paragraph says the employee agrees to do the things agreed to in the other two paragraphs, thus making it extra enforceable.  

With respect to those joining the administration, the appointee agrees that the appointee will not, for a period of 2 years from the date of the appointment, participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to a former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts.

As important as the foregoing provisions are, none is more significant than the provision found in section 3. That provision might be called the “Allie allie outs in free” section of the executive order. Its formal designation is much simpler. It is simply entitled “waiver” and says in part: “(a) The President or his designee may grant to any person a waiver of any restrictions contained in the pledge signed by such person.    (b)  A waiver shall take effect when the certification is signed by the President or his designee.” A legal opinion issued in 2010 says ethics waivers cannot be made retroactive. Since DJT wanted some of the waivers to be retroactive because of the activities of some of his appointees following their appointment, and since the waivers cannot be made retroactive, DJT came up with a clever way of circumventing the rule. The waivers that were given to senior White House staff are undated and the administration has refused to say when they were issued. Thus, the white House has unethically managed to bless the actions of those receiving the waivers even though the waivers were not in force when the proscribed conduct took place.

Those reading about the foregoing and learning from headlines that more than two dozen ethics waivers were going to be released could be forgiven if they assumed that an ethics waiver meant that its recipient could, with impunity, and following in the footsteps of DJT and his Trump children and other family members, behave unethically. That is not, obviously, what use of those two words mean. All they mean is that an appointee is free to contact those that he or she could not have contacted without the waiver. It does not mean that any unethical behavior arising out of those contacts is sanctioned. That is why it differs from rules applying to the Trump family. Sad but not surprising. Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at For political commentary see his web page at

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Immigrant as Criminal

Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.
—Charles de Secondat, De l’Espirit des Louis (1748)

As usual, the fake news people are trying to make a big deal out of the fact that it took DJT more than 48 hours to respond to the killing of two men on a Portland commuter train, and the serious injury of a third, by a United States citizen. The killings took place after two teenage girls, one of them wearing an hijab, were verbally attacked by the United States citizen. Three bystanders came to the defense of the girls and the United States citizen killed two of them and grievously wounded the third.

At the time of the incident, DJT had just returned from a triumphant trip abroad, his first as president, and he was, of course, focused on the success of that trip and other things that had happened in his absence. Between the time of the murder on May 26 and Memorial Day on May 29, DJT sent out more than a dozen tweets praising himself for the self-perceived success of his foreign travels, praising the newly elected member of Congress who successfully body slammed a reporter to the floor to teach the reporter not to ask questions, and tweetily slamming the media for publishing reports critical of DJT. But that in itself is not why DJT did not comment on actions of the United States citizen. He failed to comment because there are, on average, 23 gun homicides a day in the United States, most of them by United States citizens, and any number of non-gun murders. If DJT tweeted about every murder that takes place in the United States on a daily basis, he would have little time to tweet about anything else.

Nonetheless, “Fake news” sites such as the New York Times commented that DJT seemed not to have noticed the events that took place in Portland. A former prominent newscaster, Dan Rather, went so far as to send a letter to DJT, drawing DJT’s attention to what had happened in Portland. He concluded his letter saying, “Two Americans have died leaving family and friends behind. . . . I hope you can find it worthy of your time to take notice.” DJT did so the following day in a sympathy tweet.

The reason DJT did not respond without prompting, is that the murderer was a United States citizen. Had the murderer been an immigrant, DJT’s response would have been quite different. As he said in an interview on Fox news some weeks ago: “We’ve gotten tremendous criminals out of this country. I’m talking about illegal immigrants that were here that caused tremendous crime. That have murdered people, raped people – horrible things have happened. They’re getting the hell out or they’re going to prison.” And DJT has done more than just complain about those “tremendous criminals” who are immigrants. He has demonstrated his concern about crimes committed by immigrant criminals by creating a new office in the Department of Homeland Security that will help only those who are the victims of crimes committed by immigrants.

The new office is called “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement” or “Voice” for short. It gives voice to victims of crimes if they are lucky enough to have become victims because of the actions of immigrants. It does not help victims who achieved their status through the actions of United States citizens, such as the ones in Portland. The website for Voice says its mission is to “support victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens, through access to information and resources.” Describing voice, John F. Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, said: “All crime is terrible, but these victims are unique-and too often ignored. These are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place because the people who victimized them oftentimes should not have been in the country in the first place.”

Voice will be staffed by 27 specialists in victim assistance and 21 community relations officers who “will assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens.” The office will provide a hot line for victims to call to get information about the status of their criminal’s case and the criminal’s progress through the immigration system.

It would not be surprising to learn that readers who know of the existence of Voice will secretly entertain the hope that, if they are the victims of a criminal act, it will not be committed by a United States citizen, but by a removable criminal alien. Their hope would be inspired because of the benefits available through Voice. They should realize that it is unlikely that their hopes will be realized. Notwithstanding DJT’s comments to Fox news, immigrants are, in fact, less likely to engage in criminal conduct than United States citizens. Among men between 18 and 49, immigrants were only one-half to one-fifth as likely to find themselves incarcerated as native born Americans. Immigrants make up 7% of the population in the United States, but only 5% of prison population. That is not meant to suggest that Voice is useless. Its creation enables DJT to believe he is doing something worthwhile. Would that he were.