Here we are in the depths of winter and the animal kingdom around is largely hunkered down until warmer weather comes - a few winter birds, ducks and geese, squirrels, a fox, and a few other strays. Here are a few photos I've take over the last few weeks.
Squirrels like to catch some rays:
Photo of red fox from a long ways away:
Neighbor's cat sitting on the ice watching the birds in the brambles (don't worry, there's no water underneath the ice):
Here are my top 5 quotes from Trump's nominees during this hectic week. Yes, some of them, like Ben Carson's, are taken out of context but are too good to pass up. I'm sure I missed plenty more. Please feel free to add your own.
Senator Menendez: "I would have thought Russia would be at the very top of that [Tillerson's discussions with Trump], considering all that’s taken place. Did that not happen?"
Rex Tillerson: "That has not occurred yet, Senator."
Tillerson: "I have never lobbied against sanctions personally. To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions."
Bob Corker: "I think you called me at the time [sanctions were being considered]."
Ben Carson: "It will not be my intention to do anything that will benefit any American."
Jeff Sessions, in an attempt to turn his prosecution of civil rights activists trying to help blacks vote into a defense of voting rights: “I was accused of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by prosecuting [civil rights activists trying to help blacks vote in] the Perry County voter fraud case. The prosecution sought to protect the integrity of the ballot, not to block voting. It was a voting rights case."
Senator Caputo: "As a person who represents an almost all rural state, I'm concerned about how we're going to be able to incentivize the private dollars to go to the less populated, less economically developed areas of our country?"
Elaine Chao: "It's a huge issue that demands the best thinking of all of us".
James Comey has become a law unto himself and that's saying something when we are talking about the current GOP and the upcoming Trump administration. After his appalling statement at the Russian hacking hearings when he was asked about any investigation into connections with the Russians from the Trump campaign and replied, "Especially in a public forum, we would never confirm or deny a pending investigation", some in Congress took that to signal that he would discuss the issue in a private, confidential setting. But this is James Comey and apparently he again refused to answer virtually any questions about potential or ongoing investigations of Russian hacking and possible connections to the Trump campaign, this time in a classified briefing to Congress. According to the Guardian article, "One source in the meeting said Comey would not answer 'basic questions' about the FBI’s current investigative activities". In a September hearing, Comey had again spoken inappropriately about the criteria he applied for acknowledging an investigation, saying that he would confirm an investigation when there is a "need for public to be reassured, [and] when it’s obvious, it’s apparent, given our activities, public activities that the investigation is ongoing". Of course, this criteria is totally made up under the rules of James Comey. They are in direct violation of DOJ rules and guidelines which demands no comment on ongoing investigations. So, in this hearing, Representative Jerrold Nadler asked, "Do you believe that [Comey] standard has been met with reference to the possible investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible connections to the Russian government? And if not, why not?" Comey refused to answer the question, infuriating Nadler and other Congressmen at the hearing and prompting Nadler to ask if Comey was applying a double standard for Trump.
Here is today's edition of Trump's and the Republican's attack on our democratic institutions. Let's start off with the new Joe McCarthy of the current Republican Congress, Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz apparently is not responding well to the head of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), Walter Schaub, and his continual criticism of Trump for not truly divesting his businesses and the Trump transition for its lack of communication and provision of documents for the OGE to do its job. Trump's announcement on Wednesday that he was transferring the management of the Trump Organization to his sons did nothing to resolve the ethical and conflict of interest concerns about Trump. Shaub was clear about that in a subsequent news conference where he said that the move had done little to insulate Trump from the "suspicions of corruption". It should be remembered that the first move of the Republican Congress was a failed effort to gut the OGE and remove its independence. That having failed, Chaffetz is now using his chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee to engage in yet another witch hunt to intimidate Shaub. Chaffetz accuses Shaub of "blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance." Chaffetz requested that Shub appear before the staff of the Committee by the end of the month. Needless to say, the Republican PR machine immediately backed up Chaffetz and provided the party line excuse for any future Republican failures as the America Rising PAC leveled its own accusations against Shaub, saying, "The American people deserve to know if Walter Shaub has turned the ethics office into an arm of the Senate Democrats’ campaign of obstruction." As Richard Painter, George Bush's ethics lawyer said, "They [Chaffetz and the GOP] are strong-arming them [the OGE]. They are obviously very upset the Office of Government Ethics is leaning on Trump and not willing to jam through his nominees. It is political retaliation." It looks like Chaffetz is taking his playbook straight from that other great Republican, Joe McCarthy.
Sometimes you read a story and you wonder where Democrats went wrong in their appeal to red states. At yesterday's hearings for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the issue of Trump's infrastructure plan that focuses on public-private partnerships (PPP) came up. These partnerships are basically a privatization scheme of our public infrastructure. In return for enormous tax benefits, private companies get to build or repair infrastructure and the recoup the cost from consumers through tolls and other usage fees. Taxpayers seemingly end up paying twice, once to subsidize the building of the infrastructure and then again to use it. One of the problems with these PPPs is that they tend not to be profitable in low density, low use areas such as rural America. And a number of red state Senators seem to recognize that problem. Shelley Moore Caputo from West Virginia asked Chao a very pointed question in that regard, inquiring, "As a person who represents an almost all rural state, I'm concerned about how we're going to be able to incentivize the private dollars to go to the less populated, less economically developed areas of our country?" Chao's insightful answer was, "It's a huge issue that demands the best thinking of all of us". I'm pretty sure the mainstream Republican thinking on the issue would be to offer even greater giveaways, I mean incentives, for private companies to "invest" in the areas Caputo describes. A far more effective plan that would be cheaper in the long run is, of course, the Democrats' infrastructure plan which has languished in the Senate because of inaction by Caputo and her other GOP Senators for at least the last four to six years. As the author of the Slate article notes, "While Democrats have largely favored large public investments in public works, the people who benefit most from such programs are often rural Americans who depend on government largesse." Other GOP Senators who expressed a similar concern to Caputo's were Ted Cruz from Texas, Don Young from Alaska, and John Thune from South Dakota. Said Thune, "The urban-rural thing is my version of bipartisanship", implying, I guess, that both areas are looking to improve infrastructure. Well, the GOP had years to take advantage of that bipartisanship and they never did. And, clearly, Democrats never made any of these red-state Senators pay for that obstruction. But the concerns of Caputo and others show that Democratic policies can appeal to red state voters.
Of course, then you read a story like this, and you realize why Democrats have such a hard time appealing to both red state voters and progressives. Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders introduced a budget resolution that would allow the importation of drugs from other countries such as Canada. These drugs are far less costly in other countries than they are in the US. Only 39 Republicans voted against this resolution meaning that it should have passed the Senate quite handily. But, no. Thirteen Democrats also voted against this resolution, sinking it by a vote of 52-46. Here is the list of those 13 defectors: Cory Booker of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Chris Coons of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Tom Carper of Delaware, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Michael Bennett of Colorado, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Patty Murray of Washington, Jon Tester of Montana, and Mark Warner of Virginia. New Jersey is the home to many big and small pharmaceutical companies and most of these Democrats, especially Booker and Menendez, have received big donations from Big Pharma. But if there was ever a time to buck the big donors on a vote, this was surely it. Trump himself is going after the pharmaceutical companies, singling them out in his press conference. Of all these Senators, I believe, only Booker is up for re-election in 2018. With cover from Trump and even other Republicans, it would blunt any Republican challenge that Pharma could find for Booker and possibly the other Senators. Tester and Donnelly are in red states so this vote would seem like a no-brainer for them, especially Donnelly as he will be defending a tough seat in Indiana. And Patty Murray is part of the Democratic leadership. Some leadership!
Both these stories a classic examples of how Democrats blow chance after chance to expand their message into Republican territory. Until we learn how to do that effectively, every election will be much closer than it should be, despite being a majority in the country at large.
The assault on our democratic institutions has already begun and will continue apace under the kleptocracy of Donald Trump. Under the cover of all the chaos surrounding yesterday's Trump press conference, Obamacare repeal, and cabinet nominee hearings, the Republican House passed a bill that will gut the ability of federal agencies to regulate private enterprise. TPM received a note from Martin Lobel, a Washington lawyer and expert in tax and regulatory policy, about the effects of the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017 that passed the House yesterday by basically a party line vote of 238-183. Says Lobel, the bill "would amend the Administrative Procedures Act to overturn the deference courts have given to administrative agency decisions." Currently, courts have had to give deference to the rulings of federal agencies and could only overturn those agencies' decisions if the court found them to be "arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion". This bill eliminates the requirement for a court to give any deference to the federal agency, leaving agencyies with virtually no power to enforce the laws they were supposed to protect. As Marshall notes, this threatens the enforcement of everything from the Clean Air Act to the standards prescribed by the Labor Department. Any court could rule against those agencies when private firms bring action against them. And, as we've already seen with Obama's immigration executive order and the Labor Department's overtime rule, there are plenty of courts already out there who would be willing to do this.
While the House was dismantling our federal agencies, Trump and Pence were out there doing their best to begin to whittle away at the freedom of the press. Trump's tweet about the release of an intelligence report summary about his campaign's connection to the Russians was the start of the attack. Trump tweeted, "Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?" This was followed by Sean Spicer starting off the press conference by ripping the media, saying, "It’s frankly outrageous and highly irresponsible for a left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect’s campaign to drop highly salacious and flat-out false information on the internet just days before he takes the oath of office...The fact that BuzzFeed and CNN made the decision to run with this unsubstantiated claim is a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks. The report is not an intelligence report, plain and simple."
Kevin Drum makes the case that since the intelligence community produced this report and was prepared to present it to the President, that they believe the source was credible, and that they had asked for wiretaps on Trump campaign officials because of it, probably makes it newsworthy enough to be published with the caveat that it contains unsubstantiated allegations. I would tend to agree.
Mike Pence then followed Spicer with an even more troubling comment, saying, "You know, I have long been a supporter of a free and independent press and I always will be. But with freedom comes responsibility. And the irresponsible decision of a few news organizations to run with a false and unsubstantiated report, when most news organizations resisted the temptation to propagate this fake news, can only be attributed to media bias and attempt to demean the president-elect and our incoming administration and the American people are sick and tired of it." I think it is troubling that any official adds a "but" to any comment about a free and independent press. This was followed by rousing applause from the Greek chorus of Trump supporters that had been assembled to apparently cheer the President and critique the news media. Hardly an atmosphere for independent journalism.
Trump then further inflamed the situation by refusing to allow the CNN reporter to ask a question and calling his network "fake news". When the reporter kept pressing, apparently Spicer came over and threatened to expel him from the press conference. So much for Pence's vaunted belief in the "free and independent press". From Nazi references to threatening to throw a reporter out of a press conference for wanting to ask a question, it was not a good day for press freedom.
Today, General James Mattis was supposed to appear before the House Armed Service Committee to discuss civilian control of the military but the Trump transition apparently blocked his appearance. Mattis needs a waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense because he is a military officer and the civilian control of the military is an important constitutional principle. Mattis will also need to be confirmed by the Senate and will need 60 votes for the waiver in that body as opposed to just the majority from the House. So it seems unnecessary to anger not only House Democrats but apparently even some House Republicans by not appearing as it was clear Mattis was going to get the waiver, perhaps with even the support of House Democrats. Now even House Republicans are miffed with Duncan Hunter saying, "It’s a big mistake by the administration not to have him come and talk to us. On something that’s this momentous, where you are making an exemption to the law — it doesn’t change my mind, but he should have come in and talk to the House about it." As Hunter indicated, Republicans will still give Mattis the waiver but without any Democratic support. It may also make some Democrats in the Senate less inclined to give Mattis the waiver even though he does some to be one of the sanest of Trump nominees. While Secretaries sometimes refuse to appear before House committees at specific times due to other conflicts, those hearing are usually rescheduled and they do appear. I can not remember a circumstance where a Secretary refused to appear at all which is apparently what the strategy with Mattis' appearance in the House will be. It is yet another norm of governance that the Trump administration, with complicity from the Republican party, is destroying.
Trump has not yet become President but the Republican majority in Congress is well on their way to destroying the institutions of government as we know them. And when Trump becomes President, he will be right there to assist them. As Martin Lobel wrote, "BEWARE!"
File this under the category of better late then never. Apparently the Justice Department has finally launched an investigation into James Comey's actions during the election. This late move by the Justice Department will probably go nowhere but it does put the new head of the DOJ, presumably Jeff Sessions, in the uncomfortable position of either letting the inquiry run its course or quietly shutting the investigation down. On the flip side, it certainly boosts Sessions ability to control Comey as long as he lets the investigation drag out in addition to potentially forcing Comey to recuse himself from some investigations of the Trump administration because Comey himself would essentially be under investigation by the Trump administration. For Democrats, this would cry out for an independent prosecutor.
But even if those salacious accusations in the Buzzfeed report turn out to be true, at least one GOP Senator doesn't think it would matter because Trump is basically unable to be blackmailed. Senator Charles Grassley from Iowa said, "It seems to me that when you go back through the campaign and all the things that Trump said that ought to give him political problems and all the things that were caught on tape — that he would probably just as soon not have the world know about it – it’s kind of improbable to me that anybody who knows anything about Trump — that’s going to end up hurting Trump. And he was elected President of the United States."
I find this hard to say, but I actually agree with Grassley on this one. It is hard to imagine that there is anything we haven't already seen or heard from Trump that could shame him into doing anything. Heck, at yesterday's press conference he practically bragged about trying to be basically bribed by a developer from Dubai. (In typical Trump fashion, he got the name of the "friend of mine, great guy" who offered him the $2 billion deal wrong. Trump called him "Hussein Damac" but the man is actually Hussein Sajwani and he owns the development company DAMAAC that has close ties to the government of Dubai.) One thing I do know for sure is that whatever might come out about Trump from the Russians or elsewhere, Grassley and his Republican sycophants will go right on supporting Trump without any hesitation.
While we are all transfixed by the awfulness of Trump's nominees, Trump's unwillingness and inability to actually eliminate his conflicts of interest, and the unsubstantiated allegations about Trump's Russian connections, Trump is well on his way to destroying a smooth transition of government.
Last week, Trump ordered all ambassadors to resign on January 20th and leave their official positions on that date. Ambassadors serve at the will of the President so it is perfectly legal for Trump do demand this. But if you are looking to express the continuity of American interests, it is helpful to actually have an ambassador representing the US in each country. Traditionally, Presidents have made sure they allowed existing ambassadors to remain in place until they have a replacement ready, especially in countries that are critical to American foreign policy. Because any ambassadorial appointment needs Senate approval, sometimes that replacement may not be available for months. Republicans blocked Cassandra Butts from becoming the ambassador to the Bahamas for over 5 years. In addition, time has usually been granted to allow those ambassadors to take care of any personal matters, such as staying in country until their child's school term ends. As the former ambassador to Finland put it, "It feels like there’s an element just of spite and payback in it. I don’t see a higher policy motive."
Over at the Energy Department, the Trump transition has also forced out the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and his deputy, effective January 20th. The NNSA is responsible for maintain the safety of America's nuclear arsenal. No replacements for these positions have been announced and both positions will again require Senate approval. In addition, there are dozens of other political appointees within the agency that do not require Senate approval. They are also expected to leave their posts on January 20th. As one unnamed source put it, "It’s a shocking disregard for process and continuity of government...I’m more and more coming around to the idea that we’re so very very fucked." It should also be noted that Trump has appointed Rick Perry to head the Energy Department, an agency he has proposed to eliminate. The recklessness of leaving the department assigned to protect out nuclear arsenal basically leaderless speaks for itself. If a Democratic President had pulled a stunt like this, Republicans would be screaming treason.
Today, Trump ramped up his criticism of our intelligence community, virtually accusing them of leaking the allegations about the Trump campaign's contacts and coordination with Russia and the fact that Russia had compromising material on Trump himself from his visits to Russia. In addition, Trump and his team ripped Buzzfeed and CNN for reporting the details of these allegations in a morning tweetstorm and in his press conference. In his tweetstorm, Trump said, "Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?". And in his press conference today he said, "...but I do have to say that — and I must say that I want to thank a lot of the news organizations here today because they looked at that nonsense that was released by maybe the intelligence agencies? Who knows, but maybe the intelligence agencies which would be a tremendous blot on their record if they in fact did that."
It's probably never a good idea to start off your administration with a feud with your intelligence agencies. It sends a powerful signal to allies and enemies about disarray at the highest levels of government. And it can be potentially damaging to the President as the intelligence community has enormous power, as J. Edgar Hoover so amply demonstrated for decades. For people who believe the Buzzfeed allegations, their worst fears about Trump will have been confirmed. For people who believe in Trump, it is another example of the establishment and intelligence agencies working to undermine and delegitimize him. For Putin and the rest of the world, it shows an America divided and a government in internal conflict.
Welcome to Trump's America, stripped of its diplomatic representation and expertise, its nuclear safety agency leaderless, and its intelligence community under attack from their own President. Our enemies must be rejoicing and our allies shaking in their boots.
The article first shows that states that were largely underpolled in the last week of the campaign showed the greatest variance from the poll averages for that state. According to Vox, "pollsters didn't get things wrong so much as fail, in some states, to speak to voters after the decisive event had taken place". Trump gained a massive 2.4 percentage points in the polls after the Comey letter.
Next, a similar dramatic move toward Trump occurred in the national polls after the Comey letter. Nate Silver estimated that move to be close to 3 points. That is a massive move in voter preference in just one week. Similarly, Silver estimated that Comey's original comments in July prompted a similar, but slightly less massive, move against Clinton. In addition, both campaigns' internal polling showed that Comey's letter changed the race.
The third piece of evidence looks at the difference between early voting that occurred before the letter and the election day polls. In states as diverse as Rhode Island and Florida, the drop in Clinton support was huge. In Rhode Island, a solid blue state, Obama had outperformed early voting by 5 points on election day. Clinton underperformed by an enormous 13 points. In Florida, a battleground state, Clinton won the early vote by 4 points but lost on election day by 12 points. In the all important I-4 corridor in Florida, Clinton's decline was nine points.
Finally, Comey's letter just fed into the media and Trump campaign narrative suggesting scandals and corruption surrounding Clinton. Amazingly, 79% of voters had heard a lot about Clinton's emails while only 59% had heard about Trump's Access Hollywood tape. In the final week of the campaign, the media narrative turned hugely positive for Trump and massively negative for Clinton.
There was only one media event that could create the huge negative movement against Clinton by voters in the last week of the campaign and that was the Comey letter. Much of the explanation of a revolt by the white working class that responded to Trump's message misses the fact that the states that had a large white working class population were largely underpolled in the last week of the campaign. A more likely explanation for those voters' choice would be the Comey letter. That is backed up by the fact the Trump's favorability rating is now at 37% at a time when he should be enjoying the usual post-election honeymoon.
Vox summarizes their findings, saying, "But Comey's letter is unique for a few reasons. First, it was an intervention by an institution that Americans have largely perceived as nonpartisan...Second, the intervention was almost perfectly timed to impact Clinton at the worst time...Finally, it aligned perfectly with the narrative pushed by Trump - and bolstered by the media's obsessive coverage of how Clinton handled her State Department email, and the slow-drip release of hacked emails - that Clinton was somehow fundamentally corrupt." Please read the whole article and see how convincing the case they make is.
It is surprising that this has even become an issue because, according to Comey, "Especially in a public forum, we [the FBI] would never confirm or deny a pending investigation". The chutzpah in that statement in astronomical. The election of Donald Trump, and possibly even control of the US Senate, was and always will be about Comey, Comey, Comey!
Trump's lawyer runs through steps taken re Trump organization. That includes setting up a trust that still allows the sons to run the business. In addition, they will do no foreign deals. Reiterates that Trump is not covered by conflict of interest laws. Lawyer gives an opinion on the Emoluments Clause that is pretty suspect but says that the profits from any foreign payments for hotel rooms will be passed to the US Treasury. Of course, that leaves it up to the sons to calculate what the profit is for a particular hotel room. Lawyer ends her segment by making a stump speech supporting Trump, saying he will make America great again.
Editorial Comment) This is really no separation at all and does nothing to resolve his massive conflicts of interest. And I'm not sure we need a legal opinion also stumping for Trump
Q) concern about wealth of Trump cabinet
Trump) Praises Sessions and Tillerson. We make bad deals on trade with China, Japan, and Mexico and we need people who are smart and successful.
Q) Repeal and replace
Trump) Obamacare is a complete and total disaster. It's imploding. repeats myth that rates are increasing over 100% in some states. Says we could wait and watch it implode but that wouldn't be fair. Says Democrats own it and he could let it implode in 2017. He will be submitting a plan to repeal and replace simultaneously shortly after HHS Secretary is confirmed. Deductibles are too high. Obamacare is a Democrats problem and taking it off the table will be doing the Democrats a favor.
Q) capital repatriation and tax cuts
Trump) I'm saving jobs like Carrier. the word is out that moving your plant to Mexico and firing your employees just won't work anymore. Selling through a strong border will not happen because you will be hit with very strong border tax. There will be major border tax. Repeats myth that there are 96 million people looking for jobs.
Q) Are we living in Nazi Germany, opinion on intelligence community, SCOTUS, and border fence
Trump) We are going to build a wall. Mexico will reimburse us in some form for the cost of the wall, either through a tax or a payment. Love the people of Mexico and the govt. of Mexico is terrific. Mexico has taken advantage of the US. On Supreme Court judge, he's met with numerous candidates who passed muster with the Federalist Society and Jim DeMint. He will make a pick within two weeks of inauguration. Questioner follows up re Nazi tweet. Trump relies that it is a disgrace that information that was false and fake got released to the public. Specifically mentions Buzzfeed and CNN. Says he looked at Michael Cohn's passport and he never left the country and media should apologize to Cohn.
Q) CNN says since Trump is attacking them, can they give me a question
Trump) "you are fake news" and refuses to take questions
Q) Did Obama go too far for Russian sanctions.
Trump) Takes a shot at Lindsey Graham.
Q) If it is determined that Buzzfeed reports have some truth, what would he do
Trump) pretty much nothing
Q) what changes in intelligence community would he make and is his feud undermining us intelligence capability
Trump) focuses on media and reporting fake news
Q) do you trust US intelligence officials
Trump) Intelligence are vital and we are going to complete a major report on hacking. Says US is worst in terms of hacking protection. Goes back to the DNC being open to hacking while RNC was protected. The US is hacked by everyone.
Q) Another question re intelligence community
Trump) Says intelligence community leaks. and the Buzzfeed report should never have been leaked
Q) can he deny that any Trump campaign had linked to Russia
Trump) Putin should not be hacking and he will respect our country more now that Trump is President. Goes back to hacking defense. Takes a shot at Hillary reset. all countries will respect us far more than past administrations.
Editorial comment) Pointedly he did not answer the first part of the question.
With that he ends the press conference.
Reports that Trump returns and denies that his campaign had any contact with Russians.
As we begin Donald Trump's first press conference in over five months and since he was elected President, it should be noted that a new Quinnipiac poll shows his approval rating at 37%, an abysmally low number during any President's term, much less for an incoming President enjoying a traditional, but now almost non-existent, honeymoon period.
Sean Spicer starts with blistering attack on Buzzfeed and CNN, saying the release of the documents was an"outrageous and irresponsible from a left-wing media outfit", "a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks", and "a political witch hunt by some in the media".
Interesting that a press conference has a cheering section.
Pence speaks first, praising Trump and the pace of the transition. He continues the attack on the media, saying it is a "concerted effort by some in the media to delegitimize this election" and attackes media bias.
Trump speaks!! Trump starts off by thanking the news organizations for not running the Buzzfeed story and then suggests that the intelligence community might have released these documents.
Methinks he doth protest too much!
Talks about businesses bringing jobs back to the US, mentioning Fiat Chrysler, Ford. Wants to bring drug industry back. Wants to be able to bid on drugs, attacking big Pharma. Mentions the F-35 plane debacle. "I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created". Now segues into the beautiful inauguration with great bands and massive crowds, because he has created a movement. Announces David Shulkin as head of the Veterans Administration. Repeats the myth that veterans can't get appointments until their cancer has become terminal. Says veterans have to wait sometime 14 or 17 days to get an appointment. Has he ever tried to get a doctor's appointment himself?? Talks about privatizing the VA.
Question: First question on the Russian allegations, was he briefed and does he believe Russia influenced the meeting.
Trump: The meeting is confidential and says he did receive the documents outside the briefing. Admits that Russia did hacking but other countries hack as well. "We have much hacking going on". Takes a shot at the DNC for lacking proper hacking defense.
Question) How will this effect relationship with Russia?
Trump: Trump would have fired Podesta for what he said about Hillary. But we learned from hacking, for instance that Hillary got questions for the debate.
Question) does he accept Putin helped Trump.
Trump: If Putin like Trump, that is an asset. He will be tougher on Putin than Hillary.
Question) does he regret any actions he made in Moscow?
Trump) Says you better be careful when you go to Russia because they have cameras in the hotel rooms. Says does anyone really believe this story and the he is a germaphone.
Question) Was the hacking is justified and will he release tax returns.
Trump) Says he has no dealings, no loans, no nothing in Russia. Says he turned down a $2 billion deal in Dubai and he turned it down. Reiterates that a President has no conflict of interest problem. Says he could do it but he will choose not to do it. Questioner follows up asking if he will release his tax returns. He refuses to release tax returns because he is under audit and announces that he his turning over the Trump Organization to his sons and he will have nothing to do with the business and that his sons will not discuss the business with Trump himself. Says he doesn't have to do this because the conflict of interest laws do not require him to d this but he is doing this voluntarily. Then he turns the podium over to the lawyer who crafted the arrangement for Trump to distance himself from the Trump Organization.
I'm assuming there will be something resembling a real press conference today by Donald Trump, not just some announcement of how he is passing on control of the Trump Organization to his sons or a promo for his hotel without taking any reporters' questions. That is probably a big assumption in the wake of the unsubstantiated reports of connections between the Russian and the Trump campaign as well as the Donald's sexual proclivities in Moscow hotels that was released by Buzzfeed yesterday.
In the wake of these latest allegations which show that Trump was happy that the focus on his Russian connections would take away from any investigation of his Chinese connections as well as what we expect to be an insufficient divestiture of the Trump Organization, it is imperative that we get to look at Trump's taxes at last. Let's hope we get at least one question on that today.
James Comey strikes again. Comey was up on Capitol Hill today, testifying about the Russian's hacking the election. Democrats, of course, had a few uncomfortable questions for Mr. Comey, but, ever the comedian, he fended those questions off with humor. When asked to comment on whether their investigation showed any contacts between the Russians and people close to Trump or the Trump campaign, Comey responded, "Especially in a public forum, we would never confirm or deny a pending investigation". Poor Senator Angus King was flabbergasted by that response and finally blurted out, "the irony of you making that statement I cannot avoid."
Thankfully, this process is being challenged and is currently being heard by the US Supreme Court. The Court poked some obvious holes in the state's theory that the money was theirs. Justice Roberts posed the question of whether the state could impose an arbitrary monetary penalty on anyone convicted of a crime and then keep the money if the conviction was overturned. Robert Yarger, Colorado's Solicitor General, replied that the state could, saying, "The assumption is that the deprivation of both the liberty and the property at the time of conviction is lawful, and that the property passes into public funds." Justice Breyer pointed out that the state could fine a corporation after a conviction but the corporation would have no incentive to appeal, even if they felt the conviction was unjust, because the state was never going to return the money anyway. Mr. Yarger did not really have an answer for that, probably because the state has no intention of not reimbursing corporations. It is only their individual citizens they want to rip off.
I guess there is a reason that Mitch McConnell and the GOP are so intent on ramming through Trump's cabinet nominees as soon as possible. Each new day provides more information on the ethical problems that the nominees have. Yesterday, I reviewed six of Trump's most ethically challenged nominees. And today two of those "sleazy six" added to their list of ethical problems.
Jeff Sessions has apparently failed to disclose below ground oil and mineral rights on some 600 acres of land in Alabama in his legally mandated submissions to the Office of Government Ethics. At present, these oil and mineral rights only generate a little under $5,000 annually. Sessions apparently did report that income in the documents he submitted to the OGE. But a former investigator for the OGE was quite clear about the requirement to disclose all real estate holdings, saying, "Office of Government Ethics guidance clearly states with regard to mineral rights leases that filers must disclose their real estate holding as well as the identity of the lessee and the specific type of resources being extracted." A spokesperson for Sessions said, "We are investigating these questions and looking carefully into the reporting forms submitted to be sure that they have accurately characterized the senator’s holdings. To whatever extent that’s not the case, the forms will be amended." According to my count, this will be the third amendment Sessions will have had to make to either his submission to the OGE or the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It is now being reported that Exxon evaded sanctions on Iran, Syria, and Sudan back in the early 2000s when Tillerson was a senior executive on his way to becoming CEO. All three countries had been deemed sponsors of terror which therefore prohibited US companies from doing business with any of them. But Tillerson and Exxon never let the law or the foreign policy interests of the US get in the way. Just like Tillerson's treasonous deal with the Kurds over the objections of the US State Department that ultimately led to the Iraq civil war, Exxon just went right ahead and did about $55 million in business with those three sanctioned companies. Exxon used a legal technicality by having a European subsidiary with no US employees do the sanctioned work. Unfortunately, SEC rules required disclosure of any dealings with sanctioned countries. Exxon did not make that disclosure to its shareholders and spokesman said, "We [Exxon] didn’t feel they were material because of the size of the transactions." 55 million dollars is probably insignificant to Exxon, but not to most people, especially in the countries where they were doing business. What is more significant to Americans would be the knowledge that one of America's largest companies was doing business with our enemies. It should also be noted the Exxon was not alone in this evasion of sanctions. These were all joint ventures with Shell.
I wish someone could give me a reasonable answer about why we provide massive tax breaks to companies that evade US law and act in opposition to US foreign policy; why we provide the protections of US securities law and our legal system in general to companies that evade US law and act in opposition to US foreign policy; and why the executives in these companies that evade US law and act in opposition to US foreign policy manage to avoid any kind of censure, legal or otherwise, at all.
One Republican Senator actually has an answer to that when it comes to Trump's nominees. Jim Inhofe from the man-made earthquake state of Oklahoma simply believes that we need to hold Trump's nominees to a different, more minimal, standard. Inhofe was asked if Trump's nominees should report income from foreign sources as he and 25 other GOP Senators demanded of Chuck Hagel in 2013. Inhofe's response was they should not. When asked whether "it was different now because it's Trump", Inhofe replied, "That's just right". When the incredulous reporter followed up, Inhofe reiterated his response. His office later walked back Inhofe's statement. But I think Inhofe's statement and McConnell's actions clearly show that the GOP clearly believes in a double standard for Trump's nominees. By any normal standard, they should never be confirmed.
Angela Merkel's coalition partner has finally had enough of useless austerity. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), signaled his break with Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in an interview over the weekend. Gabriel stated his preferred result of the upcoming German elections would be a coalition of the SPD, the Green party and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The SPD and the Christian Democrats have engaged in a "grand coalition" for eight of the last twelve years.
Gabriel had this to say about Merkel, her obsession with austerity, and the stat of the European Union, "It is indecent that states like France and Italy, that are going through reform, have to spend so much energy to be allowed to go half a percentage point higher in their budget deficit. I once asked the chancellor, what would be more costly for Germany: for France to be allowed to have half a percentage point more deficit, or for Marine Le Pen to become president? Until today, she still owes me an answer". He added that that "It is no longer unthinkable that it [the EU] breaks apart."
Years of austerity insisted on by Germany, and that includes the SPD, have only managed to empower extremists across the European Union, mostly on the far right but also on the left. In Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, and even in Germany itself. Some of that is a reaction to immigration and scapegoating of EU rules as an excuse for poor economic performance. But much of it is a reaction to the useless austerity that has only impeded economic recovery from the financial crisis. As a bonus to the unnecessary pain, austerity policies actually benefited Germany despite its being the strongest economy in the region.
Gabriel has no illusions that his message will have a hard time reaching German voters who have been brainwashed for the last decade about the frivolous nature of other Eurozone countries, especially those in Southern Europe, saying "I know that this discussion is extremely unpopular". He is probably right. Both the CDU/CSU and the SPD are seeing their popularity fall to new lows while the only parties that are seeing an uptick in approval are the Left and the anti-immigrant AfD. So, while this might be too late for Gabriel and possible even for Merkel, it might also be far too late to save the EU.
What do you do when you have a whole slew of ethically challenged nominees to hold cabinet positions in your government? If you are Republicans and Mitch McConnell, you destroy another democratic norm and rush through Senate hearings to confirm these nominees virtually all at once and dispense with the normal financial disclosure and ethics reviews required by law. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) had not finished their review of most of Trump's nominees as required by Ethics in Government Act of 1978. Four of Trump's nominees, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Michael Kelly, and Wilbur Ross, have not even filed their financial disclosure forms yet. Others have submitted incomplete answers to the questionnaires required by the respective committees vetting them. Mitch McConnell's response to all this is that they can provide all this missing information at a later date as long as it is before the full vote in the Senate on those nominations. Of course, that limits the information that Democrats would actually have to question the nominees in these committee hearings and you can be sure there will be no answers forthcoming from any of the nominees once the full Senate is scheduled to vote on their nominations. It is, once again, another in a long line of acts that are destroying the norms of governance orchestrated by McConnell and the GOP.
Let's take a look at some of what we know about a few of these nominees. Let's start off with Tuesday's "star", Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions has had a long history of racist rhetoric and actions and was denied a judgeship by his peers in the Senate in 1986. In his original questionnaire response, Sessions ignored this rejection as well as severely underreporting hundreds of speeches and interviews he gave, some of which were easily found via a Google search. Sessions then amended his response. Then it was pointed out that he had listed four civil rights cases in which he had really had no role other than being the Attorney General of Alabama at the time as some of his most significant accomplishments. Again, Sessions had to amend his response to the questionnaire. So, before he has even passed muster from the Judiciary Committee, Session has already been brazenly caught lying at least twice. This sounds like a good standard for Trump's Attorney General.
Next up, let's look at Rex Tillerson. Of course his close connections to Vladimir Putin and desire to lift the sanctions so that Exxon can drill more oil in Russia might be a little disturbing to most patriotic Americans, while the fact that he still has a huge pile of unvested Exxon stock that could be worth a fortune if Exxon could drill in Russia might concern those Putin-loving Republicans who voted for Trump. But I doubt it. More troubling is Tillerson's direct refusal to accede to State Department requests not to negotiate an oil deal with the Kurds in an attempt to force the Iraqi government to share oil revenue with all areas of the country in the aftermath of the Bush war in Iraq. Tillerson refused and signed a deal for Exxon with the Kurdish authorities in Northern Iraq which ultimately helped lead to a virtual civil war in Iraq. The result of that war still lives with us today in the form of ISIS. Tillerson's treasonous act makes him a perfect candidate for Trump's Secretary of State.
Next up is our latest favorite Goldman banker, Steve Mnuchin. As an aside, what kind of corporate culture exists at the vampire squid that creates guys like Steve Bannon, Steve Mnuchin, and Gary Cohn. Mnuchin was the CEO of OneWest, the company that illegally foreclosed on thousands of homeowners, forged and back-dated thousands of documents, and illegally stole homes from the legal owner of those residences. In addition, Mnuchin used his private foundation to astroturf support for OneWest's merger with CIT, a deal that paid Mnuchin $11 million when it was consummated. This guy knows how to steal big-time so he's a stellar candidate for Trump's Treasury Secretary.
Tom Price, up for head of Health and Human Services, at least has some Congressional experience dealing with health insurance and related issues. Of course, besides his desire to repeal Obamacare and possible privatize Medicare, Price also apparently dabbles in the stock market. Documents have shown that Price executed hundreds of transactions worth at least $300,000 in at least 40 healthcare related companies while he was head of the House Budget Committee and that committee was working on legislation that directly effected those companies. As far as I know, the details of these transaction have not been released but it is certainly a real possibility that these trades violated the STOCK Act which forbids a member of Congress from benefitting from inside information the member might have gleaned from potential legislation. Here's a guy who knows how to make money off of healthcare and so he should be able to figure out a way to take health insurance from up to 30 million Americans and pass those savings on to millionaire's like himself and Trump in the form of a tax cut for the rich.
Betsy Devos, nominee for Secretary of Education, is the billionaire's daughter who married into the family that owns Amway, the apparently legal pyramid scheme, or should I say multi-level marketing company. Devos has spent her "philanthropic" life trying to destroy public education and use those tax dollars to fund voucher systems and private, charter schools. Part of that effort involved creating the All Children Matter Political Action Committee that was pushing for a school voucher plan in Ohio and DeVos's PAC asked for a ruling on how much they were legally able to spend to support that effort. The Ohio Elections Commission ruled that the legal limit was $10,000. DeVos received that ruling and promptly decided to spend $870,000 supporting the voucher plan by funneling money through the PAC's Virginia chapter. Devos merely broke the legal spending limit by $860,000 and this was AFTER she had received a specific ruling on the matter. DeVos compounded that problem by refusing to pay the $5.2 million fine when the PAC's illegal spending was uncovered. That delay added another $100,000 in late fees to the fine. Whereupon DeVos dissolved the PAC and refused to pay the fine at all because the entity no longer existed. The fine is still outstanding. And illegal campaign spending and refusing to pay what is owed makes DeVos an outstanding candidate for Trump's Secretary of Education.
Let's wrap up with Andy Puzder, the nominee for Secretary of Labor. His approach to labor seems to be at odds with Donald Trump as Puzder believes that robots make better workers. They will essentially work for free, certainly less than a living minimum wage that Puzder opposes, and you never have to pay them overtime. But then Puzder does not really believe in paying overtime either as his ownership of fast-food giants Carl's Jr. and Hardees under the parent company CKE Holdings attests. According to a recent Bloomberg study, around 60% of the Department of Labor investigations of CKE Holdings entities have resulted in at least one violation of federal labor law. Because Carl's Jr. and Hardees are run as franchises, Puzder and CKE manage to avoid any responsibility for these violations. But Puzder does have a few things in common with Trump. He is apparently a domestic abuser who has had run-ins with the police at least three times concerning domestic violence. He is also a man who is comfortable objectifying women and believes that selling burgers with scantily-clad women is American as apple pie.
That's a pretty impressive list of ethically challenged nominees. And I haven't even touched on those nominees whose views are totally antithetical to the departments they will be running. Chuck Schumer and the Democrats on those committees must do everything in their power and more to delay and disrupt these hearings. They must use every parliamentary trick in the book. They must walk out of hearings and not allow a quorum to hold the hearing. They must object to every question to a nominee who has not completed the review by the OGE. And whatever else they can think of. By no means should any Democrat on these committees vote to support any of these nominees. Unanimity is key if Democrats really want to become an effective opposition. If we have learned anything from the last eight years, it surely is that. If devising a sleepover is the best that Chuck Schumer can come up with, we are surely doomed.
That big, beautiful wall with its big beautiful door that Donald Trump planned to build along the Mexican border is apparently just another mirage, as are most promises from Trump. Unwilling to put forward a stand-alone bill that would actually fund the big, beautiful wall, the Trump transition and Congress is just looking at additional funding to improve the already existing 700 mile long border fence.
Trump does have a big, beautiful plan to get Mexico to pay for the improved border fence, but that will only happen after US taxpayers have actually paid for the upgrades. If you have a feeling that this will be another one of those promises that Trump leaves for later, meaning never, you would probably be correct. The plan is to keep non-citizens from wiring money outside of the US. This would prompt an immediate protest from Mexico which relies on the supposed $24 billion in remittances it receives from people living in the US. Of course, that $24 billion also consists of remittances from legal US residents which makes it another classic Trump "misstatement". When Mexico protests (presumably other countries would as well), Trump will tell them he will allow the remittances to continue only if Mexico agrees to pay for the big, beautiful wall. If that doesn't work, (which it won't), Trump threatens to impose tariffs on Mexican goods, cancel visas, and/or increase visa fees from Mexico in order to get them to pay for the big beautiful wall. The former simply does not recognize the economic reality of today's world, where production of a product actually takes place in multiple countries before the final product is assembled and sold. The latter two threats are virtually meaningless - Mexicans would just stop visiting, hurting US agriculture and other industries that rely on cheap immigrant labor.
As Kevin Drum points out, if you really want to cut down on illegal immigration in this country, then you need to crack down on businesses who hire illegal immigrants. That would perhaps include large fines or prison time for businesses that ignore the requirements of whatever proof of employment eligibility the law requires, such as E-Verify. Of course, to actually do this would put Republicans at odds with their real constituency, which is business and the rich. Those groups love having a nice pool of undocumented workers so that they can keep their costs down and abuse them with unpaid overtime. According to the LA Times Wayne Cornelius, "In 2014, the probability that one of the nation’s 6 million employers would be investigated for violating immigration laws was 0.03%." Right now, employers have very little reason to fear they will be discovered violating immigration laws and the penalties for doing so, even if they were discovered, are not penal. So there is every incentive for employers to cheat. And Republicans are not going to do a thing to change that. For those illegal immigrants that remain here and have built families and roots, the solution is to bring them into the legal fold by offering some kind of working rights. The reality is that most of them have jobs already.
The GOP have become masters at political theatre. They identify a problem to inflame the voting populace but their solutions are always chimeras, magical shiny objects that will never become reality and never really address the problem anyway. "Repeal and Replace" is a classic example and Trump is certainly the grandmaster of the game. It is a wonderful device when you don't have power. The real question is whether they can continue to pull it off when they are actually held responsible for governing.
I have to say that it is only since I got back into astronomy that I realize how few clear nights we actually have these days. I'm sure it is merely the normal feeling that everything in the past was better, but I certainly seem to remember more of those crystal clear nights in my childhood than we have now. In any case, I've been doing a little bit of work on enhancing the astrophotography that I am doing these days with slightly better post-production. One of those enhancements has been to add dark frames when stacking photos with Deep Sky Stacker. I've taken a recent dark frame and gone back and re-stacked some earlier images of the Orion Nebula and the results are certainly a bit better.
Here is the original photo:
And here is the new version with the dark frames subtracted:
And here are some newer efforts that were marred by some poor tracking:
The most recent election hopefully killed the myth of the principled evangelical voter once and for all. That supposedly "christian" group voted overwhelmingly for a lying, sexual abusing, foul-mouthed adulterer without any problem at all. The reality is that evangelicals are strictly a single-issue voter and the issue is abortion.
All told, this will add nearly $10 trillion in additional national debt, an increase of over 50% on the current debt. This comes after years of Republicans raging about Obama exploding the national debt and refusing to employ traditional Keynesian stimulus to combat the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression that GOP laissez-faire economics created. Of course, the reason the deficit was exploding was because the automatic stabilizers that kick in so that recessions don't become depressions actually kicked in. And, as Krugman points out, now that the economy looks like it is nearly back on its feet with something near full employment, it is exactly not the time for a massive new government stimulus. Now, if you've read other pieces on my blog, you will know I am not a deficit hawk. There is still plenty of room for deficit spending. The issue is that we needed it eight years ago or four years ago or two years ago. We probably don't need it so much now.
The much ballyhooed Freedom Caucus who supposedly were the true hardcore fiscal conservatives took less than a week to cave on their mythical "principles" and agree that deficits and the national debt only matter when Democrats are in power. David Schweikert commented, "I just came to understand all the different ideas about where we go next". Now there's a man of principle. Rep. Brian Babin had this to say, "I’d like to see a replacement on Obamacare pretty quick. Would I like to see [the budget] balance? Certainly. Absolutely. I’ve got 13 grandchildren, and I don’t want to see them buried under $30 trillion of debt." He may not want to see his grandchildren buried under a mountain of debt but apparently that is the sacrifice that must be made in order to strip away health insurance from 30 million Americans. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows put it all in perspective, saying, "The real question is: Does it change the top line number on what we’re spending? Does it increase spending — or does it become a vehicle that maintains our current spending levels and allows us to repeal" Obamacare. For Meadows, it's apparently not enough to just deny health insurance to 30 million Americans. The savings in government spending created by Obamacare must also be eliminated.
The hypocrisy of Republicans these days is simply astounding. They will say or do anything to stay in power. They may call themselves principled evangelicals. They may call themselves principled deficit hawks. They may call themselves patriots. They may call themselves principled conservatives. But the only principles they really believe in are making sure you don't have health insurance by repealing Obamacare; that women know their place in the world and are not allowed to control their own bodies; that getting old means living in poverty and dying early by privatizing Medicare and cutting Social Security; and that their rich cronies get massive tax cuts and only get richer.
Now I'm pretty sure that Pete Peterson and his astroturf organization Fix The Debt is all over this, decrying this explosion of fiscal irresponsibility. But no, a look at their website shows no real reaction at all, only a headlines that says, "Trump Will Have To Contend With Rising Debt". But that story is based on the projections under President Obama and has no discussion of this latest GOP budget proposal. The real headline should be "Trump Will Increase Debt 50%". But we get nothing. And that's because Pete Peterson really wants to see Medicare and Social Security rolled back and raging about the debt is his way to get there. Of course, his "independent" group managed to get four questions about the debt and solvency of Social Security asked during the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates.
Hopefully, this latest act of total hypocrisy by the Republicans on deficits will end the media obsession with that particular view. If we ever have to read another article about principled deficit hawks again, the reporter should be fired.