James Fallows on Yesterday’s “Surreal” Oval Office Exchange

In case you missed it, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer had a showdown in the Oval Office with Donald Trump about his border wall.  James Fallows of The Atlantic called it “surreal.”

Fallows has two questions about what happened:

  1. “Did Donald Trump realize that Chuck Schumer was mocking him, to his face, with his ‘When the president brags he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble’ line?
  2. Did Mike Pence register any emotion whatsoever, during the 15-minutes plus of extraordinary exchange?

Read the entire piece here.  Read more Atlantic coverage of the meeting here.


16 thoughts on “James Fallows on Yesterday’s “Surreal” Oval Office Exchange

  1. Jeff,
    I don’t know how much time you have spent around Washington. I was born and reared in the area and spent a portion of my career there. The city went from a rather sleepy Southern city in the 1950s into an exponential expansion in the 1960s under the Johnson Administration. Nixon did little to slow the growth. The whole thing had become like a snowball rolling downhill picking up more snow along with rocks, sticks, and other harmful debris. Nixon had other goals and new how to work the system as an insider. Today it is an out-of-control iceberg which puts its own interests first and those of the greater country second. It is neither Democrat nor Republican. Money and power speak louder than basic partisanship.
    Trump came to town without strong historical ties to either party or to the Washington club. The club does not like its authority challenged and it will not role over and “play dead.”


  2. Reagan used the phrase. He meant needless amounts of bureaucracy and waste.
    Yup Trump started out with that meaning and expanded it and or allowed his backers and base to expand it to include those institutions that he considers a threat. He will say to America but I think he really means himself.


  3. Jeff,
    I cannot recall Ronald Reagan using the Swamp appellation. I do recall him using the expression , “waste, fraud, and abuse.” I am not saying that Reagan did not talk about the Swamp, but I simply cannot recall it, and I was in the D.C. area at that time.
    Jeff, I believe you are factually incorrect in stating that Trump only uses the Swamp term to refer to DOJ and its subordinate organizations. He definitely used the term during the general election and possibly in the GOP primaries. Furthermore, the Swamp does not refer only to government offices but to the entire Washington revolving door of lobbyists, lawyers, elite media, federal contractors, trade associations, interest groups, etc. All of these interests are either interested in money, power, acclaim, or some combination of the above. As someone who spent a large portion of his life there, I can tell you that they are all in the same club. They attend the same Georgetown and Capitol Hill dinner parties, eat at the same restaurants and read the same publications. Once someone gets into the club, it opens a new miasma of opportunities. It doesn’t matter if you are a DEM or a Republican.
    As far as Muller’s evidence of Russian collusion, Jeff, we shall see. I predict he has nothing on Trump or it would have come out by now. Some might view Muller’s relentless manner as commendable while others might see it as alarming overreach unworthy of our democracy. I personally think the treatment of LTG Flynn has been shameful.


  4. Reagan campaigned with references to “The Swamp”, and meant by that waste such as you describe. Somehow with Trump it came to stress more the institutions that protect us such as the FBI, DoJ and basically any institution that is onto him.

    Mueller and his operation have not had a history of leaks. I think in some cases the now nutty Guiliani and others on the Trump team have let stuff out they learned about investigations.
    Mueller is being honest and relentless, and making his way along the trail of evidence. If Trump doesn’t manage to stop him we will learn what we learn and it will be backed by corroborated evidence. Unlike the stuff the President lets fly.


  5. Hello again, Jeff:

    Of course, all of us would like to know if Trump, Hillary, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or any other candidate might have conspired with Vladimir Putin. Since Muller has yet to uncover any substantive evidence on Trump, we might be waiting for a long season if we are hoping to find a Russian connection there. (If Muller’s Investigators had anything of consequence, it would have been leaked by now. Instead, he is focusing on unrelated process crimes and pre-election misdeeds of certain people.)

    Regarding undue secrecy in the legislative process, I probably can conclude that you have less curiosity about those matters than I do, Jeff. Having lived in the D,C. area for a large portion of my life, I know first-hand how much waste comes with federal spending.


  6. My point is that in many contexts private haggling is absolutely necessary. Definitely including that done to work out legislation.
    My references to different swamps was not confusion. Just making a point. Now I WOULD live to have an accurate account of the secret dealings between our president, various members of his campaign and representatives of Putin leading up to the election. To learn what was offered and promised and carried through on from those deal makings. That’s transparency I would like.


  7. Good Morning, Jeff:

    I respectfully think you and I have different definitions of “The Swamp,”. Talking to your wife is a private matter and does not involve the direct use of public resources. Furthermore, labor-management relations do not directly involve the public governmental trust. If XYZ company makes an agreement with ABC union, that is a private matter. I can continue purchasing the products or can find an alternative supplier. It is not necessarily my business. We call it free enterprise.
    On the other hand, I am a taxpayer and a citizen of the USA. Back in the middle 1970s The Freedom of Information Act codified the rights of citizens to know what their government was doing. National Security information is subject to restrictions but the thrust of the law was toward greater governmental accountability. I have no right to know what is going on in your family or in the labor negotiations of a company in Kalamazoo. I do have a reasonable right to know what my government is doing.
    Jeff, you bring up an interesting reflection about the Founding Fathers’ Constitutional meetings. Dr, Fea would be able to comment on the mechanics of that, but please bear in mind that the USA as we know it today did not officially exist at the time. Accordingly, the founders had no obligation to be transparent. The Constitution still needed to be ratified by the states.
    I also had to chuckle a bit when I reflected on your remark about the Constitutional Convention. Hey, I realize that these early men were not perfect, but to compare these giants to Chuck and Nancy is a bit of a stretch. Would you rather take a class in governmental propriety from George Washington or from Nancy?
    With each passing year it becomes more obvious that people come to Washington and before long acquire plenty of money and power. After they leave office, they mostly stay in the area because the money and power are still available and just too tempting. I am not necessarily alleging malfeasance here. It is simply that the Swamp system serves itself first. Ultimately, it’s our money and we deserve to know what these folks are doing with it.


  8. Yes.
    One swamp is my family because my wife and I discuss and sometimes have argued through issues before my kids learned what we came to agreement on.

    One swamp is when labor union reps and a company negotiate a new contract but neither side tells the world every idea they kicked around to avoid poisoning any future hope of a reasonable labor-management relationship.

    It’s extraordinary to believe there would be great positives if all legislative negotiations and haggling was transparently public. It simply would often cause enormous delays, divisions, and anger in the people.

    Didn’t the founders meet on the second floor with windows shuttered and a code of silence outside the building as they haggled over the shape of the Constitution? As they essentially cut deals, compromises, to satisfy different size states and states dependent on slavery?


  9. “In other words, these two old pols want business-as-usual deals which don’t reach the ears of the voters.”

    Don’t we see the deals, either in whole or in parts as various bills that are enacted? Aren’t the deals all public? Maybe we can’t divine which bill came about because of an agreement on which other bill, but they are all there along with presidential actions.
    In many cases it’s not a matter of seeing the sausage being made but the inedible stuff thrown out that would ruin a edible meal needlessly. There have always been closed door negotiations for all kinds of deals. Political, business, labor….
    What a mess it would be if that didn’t happen.


  10. Jim,
    Please reread my initial posting. I did not use the phrase “absolute transparency” nor did I imply that politicians and the rest of us don’t have public and private discussions. My comments were centered upon the Fallows article which suggested some sort of underlying wisdom or virtue in the behavior of Chuck and Nancy. It is obvious they did not want to publically go on record because they wanted to spin the discussion afterward. Furthermore, neither wanted to openly admit a hesitancy to support border security. A back room deal would have suited both of them and Mr. Fallows would have had no material for his column.

    As far as your contention that Trump is constantly covered by the press because he is an existential threat to democracy……Wow Jim! I go to the gym daily and am forced to watch the well mounted bank of T.V. screens above the treadmills. If you think that CNN and MSNBC spend most of their time uncovering substantive anti-Trump revelations, you weigh the importance of issues far differently than I do. But, of course, it’s not just those outlets. All of the major print media fans one insignificant story into a fire until the next story is found two days later.

    I respectfully think you are missing the point that Trump elicited attention long before he was even a candidate for public office and at that time he hardly had the wherewithal to destroy our democratic institutions. Trump does not play by the media’s accepted rules of engagement and they still can’t come to grips with it. James Fallows might be leading the pack of befuddled journalists.


  11. Maybe they also subconsciously find his candor a welcome change from all of the double-talk we get from politicians of both parties.

    Trump’s In-Your-Face direct bluntness was one of his BIG advantages from the very beginning of the 2016 campaign. Whereas everybody else (with the exception of Bernie Sanders) sounded like everything out of their mouths were written by attorneys and spin doctors, vetted by focus groups, and read word-for-word off the teleprompter. ANYONE speaking blunt and direct was going to stand out. Especially if he spoke about things a LOT of people were thinking but felt they couldn’t speak of aloud.


  12. Local Morning Drive-Time radio described this as “Cringe Comedy”.

    And a Rorschach Test — both Pelosi’s and Trump’s base will read it as reinforcement of “WE WON!”


  13. Chuck and Nancy wanted to make the discussions private for good reason – there’s no need for the public to see the sausage being made, they need to know, accurately, the substance of the sausage when it’s made. Trump bringing in the cameras was a political ploy that seems to be working with some people. Your concern for absolute transparency would require that all discussions between the president and his children and advisors (formal and informal), cabinet and department heads, and discussions with republican members of congress also are held in front of he cameras and microphones. Absurd.

    All politicians as well as all business people, especially business leaders as Trump is purported to be, have a public and private face. So do you and so do I and everyone else to some degree. This is not a revelation or a valid criticism of Chuck and Nancy. But to be non-selective, in order to bash those that you don’t like, you’d have to have included the Donald. By all accounts of people that know him and work with him he’s a completely different person when not in front of the cameras. He is, more than a tariff guy, a media manipulatin’ guy.

    The media report on Trump as if he’s president of the U.S. They will report on the next president as if he’s president of the U.S. What’s different with trump is his incessant need to stoke the publicity train (RE: a media manipulatin’ guy) – he brings it on himself and most of what he says is inane and alarming and usually an easily verifiable fact lie or misrepresentation or a peak into his profound ignorance. He is not your dad’s president….well, maybe Nixon…….yeah, Reagan too but at least he had a friendly demeanor and didn’t get impeached. The media report on trump as if he’s a threat to the rule of law, our democratic and law investigation and enforcement institutions, democratic institutions, and the separation of powers and the constitution. They have no choice but to do so with so much ammunition churned out on an hourly basis.


  14. James Fallows was correct in observing that Mike Pence kept his reactions to the interchange hidden. Of course, it did not take a Sherlock Holmes to note Pence’s countenance and body language. No gold star for Fallows on that one.

    Typically, however, Mr. Fallows failed to remark on the fact that Schumer and Pelosi wanted to make the discussions private. In other words, these two old pols want business-as-usual deals which don’t reach the ears of the voters. These people have made their livings by having two political personnas. One is for public consumption and the other is the real Nancy and Chuck.

    I can fully understand why certain people find President Trump objectionable. At the same time he represents a refreshing change to all of the duplicity which dominated Washington before he arrived. The major media hates the president but they can’t stop talking about him. Maybe they also subconsciously find his candor a welcome change from all of the double-talk we get from politicians of both parties.


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