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Nuclear Decision-Making and Presidential Authority: Existential Perils of the Trump Era

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“Defenseless under the night; Our world in stupor lies….”– W.H. Auden

It is no longer just a casual apprehension. Now, an inappropriate or irrational nuclear command decision by US President Donald Trump is conceivable and perhaps even plausible. Though nothing conclusive can be said about the mathematical probability of any such fearful scenario,[1] there still remain ample reasons for concern.

Certain compelling and overriding questions necessarily arise.  To begin, one must inquire: Might this unsteady American president become subject to more serious forms of dissemblance or psychological debility? Leaving aside Mr. Trump’s largely unprecedented venality, his open indifference to history and (above all) his continuing malfeasance, should he still be allowed to decide (quite literally) whether we should live or die? This is not a silly, exaggerated or contrived query by any means. In essence, at this point of markedly conspicuous uncertainty in United States law, a problematic American president now likely serves with insufficient nuclear command constraints.

As we will soon see, this partial conclusion is very plainly incontestable.  

Some further and derivative questions now also arise: Should this incumbent or any other future US president be granted extraordinary decisional authority over uncountable lives? Could such a steeply lopsided allocation of authority fairly and propitiously represent what was originally intended by America’s Constitutional”separation of powers?” Can anyone reasonably believe that such unhindered existential power could have actually been favored by America’s Founding Fathers?

Again, the correct answers are obvious, uncomplicated and altogether irrefutable.

At a minimum, we can extrapolate from both Articles I and II of the Constitution that the Founders displayed an almost palpable concern about expanding Presidential power long before nuclear weapons. Moreover, this plausibly presumptive concern predates even any imagination of such apocalyptic possibilities.[2] So, to progress sequentially: What next?

Both as a scholar and policy-centered nuclear strategist, I have been involved with these critical issues for the past fifty years, though always in a generic rather than “president-specific” sense. On 14 March 1976, in response to my direct query concerning American nuclear weapons launching authority, I received a letter from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The principal focus of this letter (attached hereto) concerned assorted nuclear risks of US presidential irrationality. Most noteworthy, in this handwritten communication, was the straightforward warning contained in General Taylor’s closing paragraph.

Ideally, Taylor wisely cautioned, presidential irrationality – an inherently grave problem – should be dealt with during an election process, and not in the throes of any subsequent decisional crisis.

“….the best protection is not to elect one…”

By definition, regarding our current presidential nuclear security problem, it’s too late to follow General Taylor’s prophetic advice. We must presently inquire, therefore, with a more narrow but still undeflected focus: “What is the actual current US governing situation regarding this most vital security issue?” Always, of course, there are assorted structural protections built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, including substantial and multiple redundancies.  Nonetheless, virtually all these reassuring and reinforcing safeguards could become operative only at lower or sub-presidential  nuclear command levels.

 Expressly, these safeguards do not apply to the Commander-in-Chief, to the democratically elected President of the United States.

 This means, inter alia, that there seemingly exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. In principle, perhaps, certain senior individuals in the designated military chain of command could still sometime choose to invoke variously selected “Nuremberg Obligations,”[3] but any such last-minute invocation would almost certainly yield to the more recognizable considerations of U.S. domestic law.[4]

Now, already at the eleventh hour, pertinent scenarios must be postulated and closely examined. Should an American president choosing to operate within a bewildering chaos of  his own making sometime issue an irrational or seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and several possible others to effectively obstruct this  wrongful order could be “illegal” on its face. Under the very best of circumstances, informal safeguards might manage to work for a time, but blithely accepting the unrealistic assumption of  a “best case scenario” is hardly an optimally sensible path to US nuclear security.

Instead, We the people ought to inquire about identifying more suitably predictable and promising institutional impediments, barriers to shield us from a prospectively debilitated or otherwise compromised US president.

 Already, to apply a common but useful metaphor, the US is navigating in “uncharted waters.” While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had then calculated his own odds of a consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This seemingly precise calculation, corroborated both by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen and by my own later private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my lecture colleague and roommate at the Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy was (1) technically irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine;” or (2) wittingly acting out certain untested principles of “pretended irrationality.”

Significantly, in stark contrast to the present moment, JFK generally was operating with tangibly serious and intellectually capable strategic/legal advisors. He did not choose Adlai Stevenson to represent the United States at the United Nations because he was “glamorous” (the standard so openly favored by current US President Donald J. Trump).

Going forward, the most urgent threat of a mistaken or irrational U.S. presidential order to use nuclear weapons flows not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack –  whether Russian, North Korean, or American – but from a sequentially uncontrollable escalatory process. Back in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing any mutual and irrecoverable nuclear harms. Now, however, any seat-of-the-pants escalatory initiatives undertaken by President Trump could reveal markedly unstable decision-making consequences.

At that late point, the once potentially lethal effects of a nuclear war would no longer be hypothetical. They would have become a literally “glowing” fait accompli.

 This is not just another political problem or alleged “witch hunt” in Washington. Accordingly, Donald Trump should immediately be made to understand the wholly unprecedented risks of being locked into a unique escalatory dynamic from which there could sometime be no recognizable range of choice except abject capitulation or nuclear war. To be sure, this would not be the same dynamic he had previously encountered in the more narrowly commercial and mundane matters of hotel construction or casino gambling. Although this American president might be well advised to seek “escalation dominance” in certain selected crisis negotiations with similarly determined national adversaries, he would urgently need to avoid any catastrophic miscalculations.

And this is not even to factor in the corresponding and potentially intersecting problems of hacking intrusion or accident.

For the immediate future, this imperative would seemingly apply most directly to one-upmanship scenarios with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, an impossible-to-predict process wherein both countries could emerge with the least satisfactory outcomes. Here, a good deal would depend upon more-or-less foreseeable “synergies” between Washington and Pyongyang, and on difficult to control penetrations of cyber-conflict or cyber-war. We might even have to acknowledge the out-of-control interference of cyber-mercenaries, unprincipled third parties working only for personal or corporate compensations.

Whether we like it or not, and at one time or another, nuclear strategy is a challenging “game” that US President Donald Trump will somehow have to play. Prima facie, this will not be a contest for amateurs, for those who expressly prefer “attitude, not preparation.” To best ensure that this too-easily-distracted president’s strategic moves would remain determinedly rational, thoughtful and cumulatively cost-effective, it will first be necessary to enhance the formal decisional authority of his most senior military and defense subordinates.

At a minimum, the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions should prepare in advance to assume more broadly collaborative and secure judgments in extremis atomicum.[5]

Even such a proposed widening of pertinent authority could not be “guaranteed.” In the end, following General Maxwell Taylor’s earlier letter sent to me in 1976, the best protection is still “not to elect” a president who is unfit for such unmatched leadership responsibility. Beyond any reasonable doubt (an evidentiary judicial standard that also fits well in this particular extra-judicial context), we are discussing here an incomparable leadership responsibility.

There is something else. From the standpoint of correctly defining all relevant dangers, it is important to bear in mind that “irrational” does not necessarily mean “crazy” or “mad.”  More specifically, any prospectively fateful expressions of US presidential irrationality could take very different and variously subtle forms. These forms, which could remain indecipherable or merely latent for a long time, include (a) a disorderly or inconsistent value system; (b) computational errors in calculation; (c) an incapacity to communicate correctly or efficiently; (d) random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of strategic decisions; and (e) internal dissonance generated by some structure or other of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of authoritative individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a unitary national decision maker).

From the singularly critical standpoint of US nuclear weapon control issues (problematic issues[6] likely to be worsened by the continuous American strategic postures of  both “First Use” and “Launch on Warning“), legitimate reasons to worry about the Trump presidency do not hinge on any credible expectations of “craziness.” Rather, looking over the above list of five representative decisional traits, there is already good cause not just for worry (which would not represent a rational or purposeful reaction), but for manifestly non- partisan objectivity and for very consistently conspicuous prudence. It won’t be easy, and it won’t necessarily succeed long-term by electing a different president.

For the immediate moment, however, US national security requires the prompt and law-based removal of this deeply-flawed president. It follows, also, that the security benefits of such an indispensable removal would have corresponding security benefits for the world as a whole. In principle, at least, the full importance of this corollary or “spillover” benefit could prove overwhelming or even incalculable.

Otherwise, we could all remain too long in a lethal or existential “stupor.”


[1] This is because (1) any statement of authentic probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events and because, in this present case (2) there are no pertinent past events.

[2] One of this author’s earliest books was (Louis René Beres) Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[3] See Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal;  2 August 1950.

[4] At the same time, of course, because the Constitution is the very conspicuous bedrock of US domestic law, and because that document stipulates that only Congress can declare war, designated military chain of command decision-makers could argue credibly that their anticipated interference with Presidential nuclear commands would be domestic law-enforcing rather than domestic law-violating.

[5] This assumes, of course, that these chain-of-command subordinates (all appointed by President Donald J. Trump) will themselves be equal to their extraordinary responsibilities.

[6] In essence, the overarching issue here is inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. While an accidental nuclear war would also be inadvertent, there are forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be caused by mechanical, electrical or computer accident. These forms of unintentional nuclear conflict would be the unexpected result of misjudgment or miscalculation, whether created as a singular error by one or both sides to a particular (two-party) nuclear crisis escalation or by certain unforeseen “synergies” arising between any such singular miscalculations.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Americas

In Praise of the Lioness of Law: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her Jurisprudence

Punsara Amarasinghe

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image credit: Wikipedia

The death of the US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has created an abyss in the court for the liberal voice where justice Ginsburg was seen as the linchpin of the liberal block of the Supreme Court at a time when that block was shrinking. Especially late judge had vociferously advocated for women ‘rights, environmental issues and often came up with unique dissents in delivering her judgements which were propelled by her jurisprudence which embodied the solemn ideal in American legal system “Equal Protection under the Law “. She was on a quest to defend the delicate balance between honoring the timelessness of American Constitution and recognizing the depth of its enduring principles in new centuries and under new circumstances.

She grew up in an era where men held the helm in every aspect of social life and especially the legal profession was utterly dominated by men. Recalling her legal studies at Harvard law school in the 50’s judge Ginsburg had stated later how she was once asked by the Dean of Harvard law school to justify her position as a law student that otherwise would have gone to a man. Yet she had the spunk to overcome all the obstacles stood on her way and excelled as a scholar becoming the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.

In tracing her legal career that it becomes a salient fact, Judge Ginsburg marked her name in American legal history even decades before she joined the bench. While at the American Civil Liberties Union in the early seventies she made an upheaval in American in legal system in famous Supreme Court Case Reed Vs Reed. In Reed Vs Reed the brief drafted by Ginsburg provided an astute analysis on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause. Ginsburg’s brief changed the aged long practice existed in the State of Idaho on favoring men over women in estate battles by paving the path for a discourse on gender equality rights in the USA.

Judge Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1994 during Clinton administration marked the dawn of new jurisprudential chapter in the US Supreme Court. Two terms later, in the United States v. Virginia (VMI), Justice Ginsburg applied her lucid perspective to a sharply disputed constitutional claim. The United States challenged Virginia’s practice of admitting only men to its prestigious military college, the Virginia Military Institute. Writing for six Justices, Ginsburg held this policy unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. In reaching this result, Ginsburg adroitly cut away potentially confounding issues about women’s participation in the military or the advantages of single-sex education.

Her robust activism in securing gender equality often attracted the admirations of the feminist scholars and activists, but it should be noted that her contribution was not only confined to the protection of gender equality. She was a robust critique of racial dissemination which still pervades in American society and she frequently pointed out how racial discrimination has marred the constitutional protections guaranteed to every citizen. Especially in the case of Gratz Vs Bollitnger, she stressed on the commitment that the state ought to fulfil by eliminating the racial biases existing employment and education. Moreover, disabled citizens. In Olmstead v. Zimring, she held that “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination” violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.45 She elaborated a two-fold concept of discrimination, noting that unneeded institutionalization both “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life”.

In remembering the mortal departure of this prudent judge that one cannot forget her keenness in incorporating international law into her judgements regardless of the disinclination shown by conservative judges like Antony Scalia. Going beyond the mere textualism approach to the law, Ginsburg’s jurisprudence was much more akin to using international law to make substantive decisions. For instance, in her concurring verdict in Grutter Vs Bollinger, Justice Ginsburg relied upon international human rights law, and in particular upon two United Nations conventions, to support her conclusions.

Indeed, the demise of Ruth Ginsburg is a major blow for the liberalists in the USA, especially in an era where liberalist values are at stake under the fervent rise of populist waves propounded by Donald Trump. Especially late judge had been one of the harsh critics of Trump even before ascendency to the Oval office. The void created by the demise of judge Ginsburg might change the role the US Supreme Court if the successor to her position would take a more conservative approach and it will fortify the conservative bloc in the US Supreme Court. Trump has already placed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and the third pick would more deeply entrench the conservative views in the US Supreme Court, which would inevitably undermine the progressive policies taken during Obama’s administration towards issues such as the environment. The political storm appeared after the death of the late judge has already created a tense situation in US politics as president Trump is determined to appoint a judge to fill before the presidential election in November.

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The Politics of (In)security in Mexico: Between Narcissism and Political Failure

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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Image credit: Wikimedia

Security cannot be that easily separated from the political realm. The need for security is the prime reason why people come together to collectively form a state. Providing security is, therefore, one of the most basic functions of the state as a political and collective entity.

Last Friday, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) laughed during his daily morning press briefings over a national newspaper headline about 45 massacres during his presidency. This attitude summarises in a macabre way his approach to insecurity: it is not his top priority. This is not the first time that AMLO has showed some serious and deeply disturbing lack of empathy for victims of crimes. Before taking office, he knew that insecurity was one of Mexico’s biggest challenges, and he has come to realise that curbing it down will not be as simple as he predicted during his presidential campaign.

Since the start of the War on Drugs in 2006, Mexico has sunk into a deep and ever-growing spiral of violence and vigilantism as a result of the erosion of the capacity of the state to provide safety to citizens. Vigilantism is when citizens decide to take the law into their own hands in order to fill the vacuum left by the state, or to pursue their own very particular interests. Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Tabasco, Tamaulipas and Veracruz have over 50 vigilante organisations that pose substantial danger to the power of the state.

Vigilantism is not the only factor exacerbating the security crisis in Mexico: since 2006, young people have also started to join drug cartels and other criminal organisations. There are important sectors of the population who feel that the state has failed to represent them. They also feel betrayed because the state has not been able to provide them with the necessary means to better themselves. These frustrations make them vulnerable to the indoctrination of organised crime gangs who promise to give them some sort of ideological direction and solution to their problems.

As a result, it is not enough to carry out a kingpin arrest strategy and to preach on the moral duties we have as citizens as well as on human dignity. People need to be given enough means to find alternative livelihoods that are attractive enough to take them out of organised crime, Mexico can draw some important lessons from Sierra Leone who successfully demobilised and resettled ex-combatants after the armed conflict. Vigilantism, recruitment by organised crime, and insecurity have also flourished because of a lack of deterrence. The judicial system is weak and highly ineffective. A large proportion of the population does not trust the police, or the institutions in charge of the rule of law.

A long-term strategy requires linking security with politics. It needs to address not only the consequences but also the roots of unemployment and deep inequality. However, doing so requires decisive actions to root out widespread and vicious corruption. Corruption allows concentration of wealth and also prevents people from being held accountable. This perpetuates the circle of insecurity. Mexico has been slowly moving towards a borderline failed state. The current government is starting to lose legitimacy and the fragility of the state is further perpetuated by the undemocratic, and predatory governance of the current administration.

Creating a safer Mexico requires a strong, coherent, and stable leadership, AMLO’s administration is far from it. His popularity has consistently fallen as a result of his ineffective policies to tackle the pandemic, worsening insecurity, and the economic crisis. Mexico has reached over 72,000 Covid-19 deaths; during his initial 20 months as incumbent president, there has been 53,628 murders, among them 1800 children or teenagers, and 5888 women (11 women killed per day) This criminality rate is double than what it was during the same period in the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012); and 55% higher than with the last president, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). Mexico is also experiencing its worst economic recession in 90 years.

Insecurity remains as the issue of most concern among Mexicans, seeing the president laughing about it, can only fill citizens with yet more despair and lack of trusts in the government and its institutions. AMLO’s catastrophic performance is not surprising, though. Much of his failures and shortcomings can be explained by both ideology and a narcissistic personality. Having someone with both of those traits ruling a country under normal, peaceful times is already dangerous enough, add an economic crisis and a pandemic to the mix and the result is utter chaos.

AMLO embodies the prototypical narcissist: he has a grandiose self-image; an inflated ego; a constant need for admiration; and intolerance to criticism. He, like many other narcissists, thinks about himself too much and too often, making him incapable of considering the wellbeing of other and unable to pursue the public interest. He has a scapegoat ready to blame for his failures and mistakes: previous administrations, conservatives, neoliberalism, academics, writers, intellectuals, reporters, scientists, you name it, the list is long and keeps getting longer.

AMLO keeps contradicting himself and he does not realise it. He has been claiming for months that the pandemic is under control: it is not. He declares Mexico is ready to face the pandemic and we have enough tests and medical equipment: we do not. He says Mexico is on its way to economic recovery: it is not. He states corruption is a thing of the past: it is not. He says Mexico is now safer than ever before: it is not. When told the opposite he shrugs criticism off and laughs, the behaviour of a typical narcissist.

AMLO, alike narcissists, due to his inability to face criticism, has never cared about surrounding himself by the best and brightest. He chose a bunch of flunkies as members of his cabinet who try to please and not humiliate their leader. A further trait of narcissistic personalities is that they love conflict and division as this keeps them under control. The more destabilisation and antagonism, the better. AMLO since the start of his presidency has been setting states against states for resources and for pandemic responses, instead of coordinating a national response. He is also vindictive: playing favourites with those governors who follow him and punishing those that oppose him.

Deep down, narcissistic leaders are weak. AMLO is genuinely afraid to lead. He simply cannot bring himself to make decisions that are solely his. This is why he has relied on public referendums and consultations to cancel projects or advance legislation. He will not take any responsibility if something goes wrong: It was not him who decided, it was the people, blame them. He inherited a broken system that cannot be fixed during his term, blame the previous administrations, not him.

AMLO is a prime example of a textbook narcissist, unfortunately he is not the only one: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte are only a few more examples of what seems to be a normalised behaviour in contemporary politics. Every aspect of AMLO’s and other leaders presidencies have been heavily marked by their psychopathology. Narcissism, however, does not allow proper and realistic self-assessment, self-criticism, and self-appreciation therefore such leaders will simply ignore the red flags in their administration and have no clue how despicably and disgracefully they will be remembered.

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Minor Successes And The Coronavirus Disaster: Is Trump A Dead Duck?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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That reminder from the Bible, ‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone’ may give us pause — but not journalists who by all appearances assume exemption.  And the stones certainly bruise.

Evidence for the bruises lies in the latest poll numbers.  Overall, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump 50 to 43 percent, a margin that has continued to increase since January.  It is also considerably wider than the few points lead Hillary Clinton had over Trump four years ago.  It gets worse for Trump. 

In the industrial states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump in 2016 won by razor thin margins, he is losing by over 4 percent.  Also key to his victory was Wisconsin where, despite his success in getting dairy products into Canada, he is behind by a substantial 7 percent.  Key states Ohio and Florida are also going for the Democrats.

Trump was not doing so badly until the coronavirus struck and during the course of his news conferences he displayed an uncaring persona larded with incompetence.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the man he fired for correcting Trumpian exaggerations became a hero and Trump the bully.

If that bullying nature won him small rewards with allies, he hit an impasse with China and Iran … while bringing the two closer to each other.  Then there is the border wall, a sore point for our southern neighbor Mexico.  President Lopez Obrador made sure the subject never came up at the July meeting with Trump,   Thus Mexico is not paying for it so far and will not be in the foreseeable future.

The United Arab Emirates, a conglomeration of what used to be the Trucial States under British hegemony. have agreed to formalize its already fairly close relations with Israel.  In return, Israel has postponed plans to annex the West Bank.  Whether or not it is in Israel’s long term interest to do so is a debatable question because it provides much more powerful ammunition to its critics who already accuse it of becoming an apartheid regime.  However, it had become Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sop to the right wing who will have to wait.  Of course, the reality is that Israel is already the de facto ruler.

If Mr. Trump was crowing about the agreement signed on September 15, although it is akin to someone signing an agreement with Puerto Rico while the United States remains aloof.  As a postscript, the little island of Bahrain also signed a peace deal with Israel.  Bahrain has had its own problems in that a Sunni sheikh rules a Shia populace.  When the Shia had had enough, Saudi and UAE troops were used to end the rebellion.  Bahrain is thus indebted to the UAE.

How many among voters will know the real value of these historic (according to Trump) deals particularly when he starts twittering his accomplishments as the election nears?

There things stand.  As they say, there is nothing worse than peaking too early.  Bettors are still favoring Trump with their money.  The longer anyone has been in politics the more there is to mine, and for an opponent to use to his/her advantage.  Time it seems is on Trump’s side.  

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