Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump And GOP Destroy The America It Took Two Centuries To Build In Just Two Days

January 27, 2017 will go down as a day of shame in American history. It is hard to imagine a US President could be so blatantly racist and cruel in this day and age. It wasn't enough that he had to subtly feed the conspiracy of Holocaust denial by not mentioning Jews at all in his statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, only saying , "It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror." No, he had to follow that up with his racist executive order that targets Muslims and refugees on the very same day. The fact that no terrorist from any of the seven banned countries has ever attacked the US is irrelevant. The fact that Muslim nations where Trump does business are not on the list is highly relevant. The fact that it was implemented in Trump's slapdash and amateur fashion is relevant. The fact that it is already effecting already vetted refugees, visa holders, and even green card holders is sickening in its cruelty. And the fact that Christians will now be given preferential treatment is just plain racist.

This follows on the heels of the executive order that paves the way for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and the creation of a mass deportation force to do so. Make no mistake, this is what Trump plans to do. He may couch the order as an attempt to go after only criminals but the order makes it clear that something as minor as a parking ticket is grounds for deportation.

Meanwhile, the silence is deafening from Republicans in Congress, despite their supposed opposition to these proposals during the campaign, proving once again that the GOP is always a profile in cowardice and lusts only for power. And if you really want to be sickened, read some of the pro-Trump commentary on Twitter.

Abraham Lincoln is spinning in his grave. In just two days, Trump and his sycophants in the GOP have destroyed the good will that it took this country over two centuries to build. And for many Americans and others around the world, Holocaust Remembrance Day will take on an added significance from this day forward.

I should also add that these orders by Trump are beyond horrible and incredibly frightening. But they also deflect from the very real possibility that the Trump administration has committed treason, outing two high ranking US intelligence assets in the Russian intelligence services to the Russians. As we have learned from other authoritarian regimes, it is quite common for them to create new horrors to deflect attention from their old horrors.

Natural Weekends - Winter Storm Clouds


Friday, January 27, 2017

Trump-May Press Conference Shows How Journalism Should Be Done

Donald Trump and Theresa May held a joint press conference after a White House meeting today. Although the big news out of the meeting was that Trump and May reiterated their commitment to NATO, a full reading of the transcript gives a slightly more nuanced interpretation. There was never any verbal commitment made to NATO by Trump at this press conference. It was only mentioned by Theresa May in far from definitive terms. Said May, "[W]e are united in our recognition of NATO as the bulwark of our collective defense, and today we've reaffirmed our unshakable commitment to this alliance. Mr. President, I think you said, you confirmed that you're 100 percent behind NATO". Since we are dealing with Donald Trump, "thinking he said" something is not a reliable indicator of what he will actually do. In fact, "thinking he said" something usually means he said nothing at all.

As far as the rest of the press conference went, both Trump and May could not say the words "special" and "relationship" often enough. In opening statements that each probably lasted around two minutes, they mentioned those words or some variant a total of 13 times. Being generous, that comes to about one mention in less than every half minute. This was diplomacy at its most vapid and merely gave Trump to stand with another world leader and Theresa May the chance to signal to her Conservative base back home that US is interested in moving ahead with a trade pact to help offset the negative effects of Brexit. Trump's advisors somehow think this will give the UK an upper hand in their negotiations with the EU and will provide a roadmap for other EU members to leave the EU and form a trade pact with the US. Instead, it will probably provoke the Europeans into being even harsher with May and the Brits.

In fact the most interesting part of the press conference was to see how clearly the Brits act like real journalists while their US counterparts are practicing stenography. Let's just look at the four questions asked today, two by UK reporters and two from Americans. Steve Holland from Reuters opened up with a nice open-ended question about Russia that allowed Trump and May to just take the ball and spin it. His question, "You're going to be speaking tomorrow with the Russian president. What message would you like to convey to him? How close are you to lifting some of the sanctions imposed on Russia over its Ukraine incursion? What would you expect in return?And Prime Minister May, do you foresee any changes in British attitudes towards sanctions on Russia?" Trump gave a non-answer and May at least reiterated the UK's belief that sanctions should continue. And here is another softball from John Roberts at Fox, "It's my understanding, Mr. President, that you had an hour-long phone call this morning with President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico. Could we get an update on where the relationship is? Further to that, what do you say to your critics who claim that you have already soured a relationship with a very important U.S. ally? And, Madam Prime Minister, if I may ask you as well, are you concerned about the state of relations between the United States and Mexico?" Trump took the opportunity to spout his usual blather, that we will have a great relationship with Mexico but they "beat us to a pulp" and "made us look foolish" in trade deals. May's answer was classic diplomatese that said a lot without really saying it, "As the President himself has said, the relationship of the United States with Mexico is a matter for the United States and Mexico".

Now let's look at the two question from the UK reporters, one from the BBC and the other I've not been able to identity. Here is the BBC question, "Prime Minister, you've talked about where you agree, but you have also said you would be frank where you disagreed with the president. Can you tell us where in our talks you did disagree? And do you think that the president listened to what you had to say?...Mr. President, you've said before that torture works. You've praised Russia. You've said you want to ban some Muslims for -- from coming to America. You've suggested there should be punishment for abortion. For many people in Britain, those sound like alarming beliefs. What do you say to our viewers at home who are worried about some of your views and worried about you becoming the leader of the free world?" Donald Trump's initial response to the question was, "This was your choice of a question?" The next question from UK reporter Tom ??? was "Mr. President, you said you'd help us with a Brexit trade deal. You've said -- you said you'd help us with Brexit trade deal, you said you'd stand by us with NATO, but how can the British prime minister believe you? Because you have been known in the past to change your position on things. And also (inaudible) it's a question to both of you. People are fascinated to know how you're going to get along with each other, you're so different; the hard-working daughter (inaudible), the brash TV extrovert. Have you found anything in common personally yet?" The first part of the question basically calls Trump a liar and asks why anyone should believe him. The second, while admittedly kind of a softball, also has a nice dig in there insinuating Trump is not a hard worker. Both of these questions reflect how real journalism is meant to be done.

Q4 GDP Disappoints As Fed Transcripts Show Callousness To Unemployed

The BEA released its initial estimates of Q4 GDP today and it came in at a slightly disappointing 1.9%. That was under the consensus estimate of 2.2%. According to the BEA, "The deceleration in real GDP in the fourth quarter reflected a downturn in exports, an acceleration in imports, a deceleration in PCE, and a downturn in federal government spending that were partly offset by an upturn in residential fixed investment, an acceleration in private inventory investment, an upturn in state and local government spending, and an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment".

On the one hand, a disappointing report like this might make some members of the Fed a little apprehensive about the December rate hike, as I'm sure they all remember what a disaster the December, 2015 rate hike turned out to be. On the other hand, PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditure), despite decelerating, still came in at a pretty healthy 2.5% in the quarter. That is definitely one of the important indicators that the Fed pays attention to and it will probably give the Fed a little more comfort with their decision.

The release of the Fed transcripts from 2011 will not make their job any easier. The disgusting bias of the banking set was on full display in a November, 2011 meeting, where Committee members blamed unemployment on drug use and a poor work ethic. Here is just a sampling of their clueless comments:

Dennis Lockhart, Atlanta Fed: "I frequently hear of jobs going unfilled because a large number of applicants have difficulty passing basic requirements like drug tests or simply demonstrating the requisite work ethic. One contact in the staffing industry told us that during their pretesting process, a majority—actually, 60 percent of applicants—failed to answer ‘0’ to the question of how many days a week it’s acceptable to miss work." At that point, the meeting broke into laughter.

The ever insidious inflation hawk Charles Plosser of the Philadelphia Fed said he had heard from one owner of a chain of McDonald's that it was hard to fill positions, saying "passing drug tests, passing literacy tests, and work ethic are the primary problems he has in hiring people."

Jeffrey Lacker, another deficit hawk from the Richmond Fed, reported, "Several firms told us of difficulty finding adequate workers, because they preferred to collect unemployment benefits or can’t pass drug tests." He had also spoke of this issue in the prior meeting in August when he said there were "widespread reports about hard drug use, OxyContin and methamphetamine, in Appalachia and other rural parts of our District—in particular, Appalachia." Again, this comment was apparently met with laughter from the rest of the Committee. Lacker continued, "It’s hard to pin this down quantitatively" and wondered if there was “something meaningful there as a contributor to impediments to labor market functioning." In fact, there was something meaningful contributing to drug abuse in West Virginia. The drug companies, pharmacies, and the state government were all colluding in an effort that poured over 780 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills into the state in the span of 6 years. The number of pills sold in that state added up to 430 pills for every man, woman, and child in West Virginia.

Of course, the real answer to the problem for companies that have difficulty finding qualified applicants for a particular job is grounded in basic economics - offer a higher wage. That thought never seemed to cross the mind of any of the bankers on the Committee. The Fed is going to have enough trouble with Donald Trump trying politicize it. Transcripts like this are only going to add more fuel to the fire.

Australian Open Finalists Take Us Back To The Future

If the world seems like it's going backward lately, you may be right. That certainly seems to be the case down under at the Australian Open. The finals are all set and it looks like something we might have seen a decade ago. On the men's side, it will be Roger Federer versus Rafa Nadal. The women will see another repeat of an all-Williams final as the sisters take each other on once again. Heck, even in the men's doubles, we will see the Bryan brothers.

Federer and Nadal both survived five set marathons in the semifinals to create this unlikely final. Federer outlasted Stan Wawrincka and Nadal was the one who didn't blink against the impressive Gregor Dmitrov. Wawrincka had one break point early in the fifth that he wasn't able to convert while Federer took advantage of his chance later in the set and then closed it out. Dmitrov had three break chances in the fifth, two when leading 4-3, but was unable to convert. That seemed to take the wind out of his sails as some unforced errors allowed Nadal to break him in the next game and serve out the match.

Serena Williams had little trouble dispatching Mirjana Lucic-Baroni who last made the semifinals at a major last century at Wimbledon in 1999. It was a fitting highlight to a remarkable journey for Lucic-Baroni. A young phenom, she was apparently abused by her father and actually left the sport entirely from 2003 to 2007. Shen then struggled for the next four years, competing on the ITF and WTA tourneys before finally breaking back into the top 100 in 2014. Her semifinal run here at the Australian Open is a fitting tribute to Lucic-Baroni's strength and perseverance. Venus Williams lost the first set in her semifinal to the big hitting CoCo Vandeweghe in a tiebreak. But CoCo could not maintain her level while Venus raised hers, winning the next two sets 6-2 and 6-3.

While my heart will be with Federer, my mind tells me that Nadal's game is usually too much for Fed to handle over a best of five set match. And while you never know what will happen when the Williams sisters play each other, it would be wonderful to see Venus, a real class act, get her hands on another Grand Slam trophy. Whatever happens, all four of them make an old timer like me not only proud but still think I can get out there and do it too. Let's hope they can give us another pair of classic matches like they used to years ago.


GOP Steps Up Efforts To Create "Managed Democracy" To Maintain Power

The other day I wrote about how Trump and Bannon are taking a page out of the Putin/Surkov handbook in creating a "managed media". Today it's time to talk about another Putin/Surkov concept called "managed democracy". The dangerousness of this concept is that, in many ways, the idea is grounded in some real truths. In a sense, every democracy is a "managed democracy". Over the years, governments have always tried to control who and how citizens could vote. But, more recently, authoritarian governments have almost perfected the ability to retain all the trappings of democracy while ensuring they maintain absolute power, Putin's Russia being the prime example. Sadly, you can see a similar situation developing in Erdogan's Turkey. The reality is that a managed democracy is, by its very nature, anti-democratic.

Here in the United States, the entire history of our democracy has been focused on managing who would be allowed to vote. The shadow of racism and sexism hangs over the extension and exercise of the franchise, with its largest legacy today being the anachronistic Electoral College that allowed Donald Trump, with James Comey's enormous help (let us never forget), to become President. The 20th Century was one long battle to extend the right to vote to all Americans, regardless of race or sex. That appeared to be accomplished with the successful implementation of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts under the Johnson administration, prompting racist Southern Democrats to leave the party in droves. But rather than relegating them to the ash heap of history where they belonged, the Republican party saw those racists as a path back to power and willingly embraced them.

As we moved into the 21st Century, it became more and more apparent that demographics were, as always, determinative and Republicans would soon become a permanent minority party. But they also realized that being a minority party did not necessarily mean losing electoral power. High powered computers and big data meant the GOP could gerrymander with utmost precision. But the GOP was happy to resort to more extreme methods, if necessary. Examples of those methods were the "Brooks Brothers" riot where paid GOP operatives shut down the Florida recount in Miami-Dade county and the 2003 mid-decade congressional redistricting in Texas in order to help Republicans control the House of Representatives.

Of course, the GOP had plenty of help from the Supreme Court in this assault against democracy. Bush v. Gore was probably the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scot and was so indefensible the Court actually included what was essentially a plea for future Courts not to use the case as precedent. That was followed up by the 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, which immediately spawned a wave of voter ID and other restrictions in GOP controlled states, tactics which had been used sparingly before.

All the while, Republicans were getting more and more aggressive with their gerrymandering and the courts seemed powerless or unwilling to stop them. For example, North Carolina has had three elections, 2012, 2014, and 2016, where the state and/or congressional districts have been ruled illegal due to racial gerrymandering. A special election in 2017 with redrawn districts was put on hold by the Supreme Court earlier this month, meaning that certain North Carolinians, predominately minority voters, will have had their voting rights severely diminished for most of this decade. In addition, the GOP is also fighting to stop the trend in the restoration of voting rights for felons. In Virginia, an estimated 20% of the African American voting age population was unable to vote due to felony convictions until Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe individually pardoned nearly 200,000 this year.

Even with all these efforts, or perhaps because of them, the GOP barely squeaked out a victory in the presidential race (with the help of James Comey), which has only led Republicans to redouble their efforts to rig the system in their favor. Trump's talk of millions of illegal voters and his (worthless) promise to investigate just feeds into Republican efforts to create more obstacles for poor and minority citizens, largely Democratic, to vote. They all know the there is no real election fraud but Trump's rantings will give the GOP legislatures more cover for abusive restrictions. Additionally, Trump's "plan" to focus the investigation on blue states will also just feed into the ability of the right to question the validity of election results in those states, further subverting democracy and potentially laying the groundwork for not accepting the results of an election, as Trump did during this past campaign.

Meanwhile, where they can, GOP legislatures are trying to game the Electoral College. In Minnesota, Virginia, and New Hampshire, GOP legislatures are attempting to change the way their Electoral College votes get allocated. In all three states, Republicans are trying to pass some version of a law that assigns electoral votes by district with some remaining votes going to the popular vote winner in that state. Under that system, Trump would have gained an additional 11 votes in last year's election. The GOP made a similar attempt in 2011 and 2015 in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If those changes had been in place for the 2012 election, Mitt Romney would have received the majority of electoral votes in those three states despite losing the popular vote there. However, this strategy is not a sure-fire winner for Republicans because Trump would have received 13 fewer electoral votes in those states had those plans been in effect last year. All of these measures have and probably will be vetoed by Democratic governors but that may just temporarily negate the GOP's efforts. There are two reasons why these kind of plans so dangerous. First, it will unfairly reward the candidate of the party that has illegally gerrymandered the state and/or severely restricted voting rights and access. With the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the federal courts, in general, unwillingness to really tackle the issues involved with the state's control of election procedures, this will just enhance Republican efforts to game the system. The second, more dangerous, reason is that it increases the likelihood of a popular vote winner not receiving the majority of Electors in a particular state. And that only increases the likelihood of the national popular vote winner not winning the presidency in the Electoral College, as has happened twice in the last 16 years. With the increasing split between urban and rural voters, this possibility is already quite high and does not need any other impetus to increase its likelihood. When the popular vote winner continues not to gain power, it is hard to really call it democracy. And it is hard to see why the majority would continue to stand for that continual result.

The last example of the Republican-controlled legislature creating a "managed democracy" regards just the blatant attempts to ignore the results of elections. In North Carolina, the Republican legislature did everything in its power, including monkeying around with local election boards, in order to keep Democrat Roy Cooper from becoming Governor after he had clearly won the election. In addition, once the legislature was forced to accede to the result, it then stripped the Governor of significant powers. In South Dakota, voters, upset by continued and rampant corruption, passed a ballot measure that imposed campaign finance restrictions and new ethics oversight on state government. While there are some questions about the constitutionality of some of the provisions in the measure, the Republican governor and legislature immediately set about to override the voters' verdict, with vague promises of a similar, more well-crafted, bill. The GOP majority leader was quite blunt in his analysis, saying, "We need to get rid of this as quickly as possible." So, in an extraordinary move, the GOP made sure the voters would have no say in the matter. Under current South Dakota law, a ballot measure that is repealed by the legislature goes back on the ballot so that the voters have a chance to repeal that repeal. But, under a quirk of the law, that rule will not apply if South Dakota is under a state of emergency. And that is exactly what the legislature did, declared an emergency and repealed the ethics measure. As a sponsor of the ethics measure correctly pointed out, "This is a brazen overturning of the election results. It’s a brazen rejection of the will of the people." It certainly is but that won't bother the GOP legislature, because this is not the first time they have defied their own voters. In 2014, the legislature restricted a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage and the legislature promptly passed a law that blocked it from applying to anyone under 18. Voters overwhelmingly repealed that law this year when it went on the ballot again. With these new ethics laws, the GOP legislature made sure the voters would not have a chance to vote again on their repeal.

This is how managed democracies work. Clever use of the legal system ensures that the party in power remains safely ensconced. There is no need for military force. And the Republican party has been making enormous efforts to manage our democracy for the last two decades with great effect. The fact that a Republican president and his advisers have openly expressed admiration for this kind of managed democracy will only increase the party's efforts, all in the name of maintaining power. As this analysis says, "In Russia’s managed democracy, all the institutions necessary for representative democracy—including the separation of powers, private media, a parliament, and a set of basic political parties—are technically present. However, none of them serves as part of a dynamic mechanism capable of self-regulation and reproduction. The elements of democracy do not work of their own accord but are quite openly controlled from above". The US may not be quite there yet, but we are probably much closer than most people believe. And faith in our supposedly "strong institutions" may be severely misplaced. It is no coincidence that the Economist just downgraded the US to a "flawed democracy". According to the study, "The US, a standard-bearer of democracy for the world, has become a ‘flawed democracy,’ as popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions has declined", and now ranks just 21st in the analysis of 165 countries. With Trump's blatant flouting of the Constitution with his rampant conflicts of interest, the crony capitalism his administration will bring, and the kind of "managed democracy" that the GOP currently employs to stay in power, I think we can expect our ranking to fall further. And that should scare us all.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Will GOP Put Up With Possible Trump Treason Just To Roll Back New Deal

I think you have to seriously wonder whether Donald Trump and senior members of his administration are actually actively aiding and abetting Putin and the Russians. First, there was the decision to force the immediate resignations of all ambassadors and make them return to the US. Today we learn that the Trump team has apparently forced the resignation of the entire top level of career bureaucrats at the State Department. As John Kerry's chief of staff at the State Department says, "“Diplomatic security, consular affairs, there’s just not a corollary that exists outside the department, and you can least afford a learning curve in these areas where issues can quickly become matters of life and death. The muscle memory is critical. These retirements are a big loss. They leave a void. These are very difficult people to replace." The loss of these critical managers as well as a lack of any ambassadorial presence means that the chances for a catastrophic misjudgment or miscommunication that could cost lives, both American and otherwise, is now enormous. That is especially true with a clearly unbalanced President. Additionally, we have learned in the last day of a major shakeup at the top levels of the Russian intelligence services, where the top cybersecurity specialist was arrested and charged with treason for apparently leaking the information about the server connection between the Russians and the Trump campaign to US intelligence agencies. Considering these arrests come literally days after the Trump team was briefed on the Russian hacking, it has to raise some serious questions. Of course, I have no evidence to back any of these inferences up, but I know with certainty that if this was a Democratic administration, we would be hearing about "treason" nonstop. I also know that the Republican Congress has been waiting a long time for a President who would sign anything they put in front of him and that this is their chance to roll back the New Deal and provide more tax cuts to their millionaire backers. But how far is the GOP willing to go with Trump, especially when an equally pliant replacement is available in Mike Pence.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Era Of Trump/Bannon "Managed Media" Begins

Ever since Republicans found Frank Luntz and figured out how to "frame" issues with words like the "death tax", they really have become masters of propaganda. With the creation of talk radio, "framing" soon morphed into slanted coverage and then into outright lies. GOP officials then would use talk radio to rally the troops behind some important issue to the GOP and, to avoid the ire of the base, go along with the lies. It became an un-virtuous circle, where lies begat more lies, where truth seemed to matter less and less. With the advent of Fox News and a captive TV audience, that cycle was enhanced.

When the Bush administration came into power, Karl Rove expanded on the concept that reality was less and less important when he famously said, "That's not the way the world works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." As Bush and Rove and the rest of us found out in the wake of the Iraq war, that attitude didn't quite work out so well.

Part of the reason Rove's plan didn't quite pan out was that the press was still out there, doing its job, and trying to report the reality as it existed. Eventually, that reality became too much to ignore. But a new generation of political strategists had a better idea. They looked to authoritarian governments that "managed" democracy and "managed" the media. The government had its own press mouthpieces and other press entities were allowed "freedom" as long as they pretty much towed the party line. Any truly dissenting voices would be marginalized or at worst shut down. The prime example of this is Putin's Russia and the architect is really a man named Vladislav Surkov. As this profile in the Atlantic describes, "The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition,...it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd".  Surkov has made the phrase "everything is PR" famous in Russia and is exporting it around the world. Please read the entire profile of the scarily brilliant Surkov in the Atlantic.

Here in the US, the reality star and PR master Donald Trump made a perfect vehicle for a white nationalist like Steve Bannon, who probably already had familiarity with Surkov's work. For Bannon, Trump's lies, the proliferation of "fake news", and constant attacks on the mainstream press all help conspire to make the idea of an objective and independent press absurd. And now, with control of the levers of power, that three-pronged attack will expand and grow.

Just reflect on what we have seen from Trump in the last week or so. An outrageous press conference with vicious attacks on the media and an attempt to redefine conflict of interest and even the meaning of emoluments. That was followed by outright lies about the size of the inauguration crowd and his win of the popular vote when you discount the millions of illegals who voted for Hillary. His press secretary backs up these lies and adds more of his own, refusing to acknowledge what the unemployment rate is. Even a man like Steve Mnuchin, who comes from Goldman Sachs and supposedly lives in the real world, backed up Trump's lie about the real unemployment rate. Then Kellyanne Conway tops it all off by introducing us to "alternative facts". Lastly, representative Lamar Smith spoke on the House floor and said, "Better to get your news directly from the President. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth." All these things are designed to eliminate the idea that there is really any "truth".

Now the effort is expanding into the agencies of government. Most agencies have not had their public relations staff filled since the inauguration. As Yglesias notes, "It’s hard to report when none of the agencies have public affairs staff in place to answer the phones." That's a feature, not a bug for Trump's new "managed media". We also learned today that federal agencies have been ordered to stop communicating not only to the press but also to Congress as well. At present, this seems to be presented as a temporary measure until the administration can get better coordinated but there is no guarantee right now that it will not be extended or used again at other points in the future. We also learned that two Trump aides have been sent to the Voice of America, raising fears at that organization. A recent change by Congress switched control of the agency from a board to a single CEO and, as Politico reports, "that change – along with a prior shift that allows the network to legally reach a U.S. audience -- had stoked fears among some agency officials that Voice of America could serve as an unfettered propaganda arm for the former reality TV star." Lastly, two Breitbart reporters, Julia Hahn , who will report to Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka have joined the Trump White House in order, it appears, to help "manage" the news and the media.

Under Trump's new authoritarianism, it appears that federal agencies will be providing less and less information to the press, the public, and perhaps even Congress. hat information is provided will more and more "massaged" before it gets released. The administration's lies will continue so that it becomes harder and harder to decipher fact from fiction. Trump will have various propaganda outfits from which to create even more confusion and attack other, more traditional, media outlets. And Trump will have the bully pulpit to continue the lies and attack the media. In the end, Trump and his propaganda outlets will become the dominant media player.

If you doubt this result, take a look at how Putin neutered the Russian media. There was no mass shutdown of opposition media. Certain troublesome reporters were simply eliminated, other outlets were closed, not by force, but by "legal" means, and the rest have learned to simply muddle through as best they can, within the bounds of the "soft censorship" they know exists.

This is the media environment that Trump and Bannon are looking to create here in the US. And while the mainstream media agonizes over whether to call Trump's lies "lies", on how to document all the lies, on whether to call every outrageous Trump tweet "breaking news" and report it with context to follow, or to even broadcast Trump or administration events live when it is clear that they are habitual liars, their power is slowly but surely being eroded and their relevance diminished. The media is having a hard time seeing the forest of truth through the trees of lies. By the time they do, they will find they have been "managed" into irrelevance.

Mexico May Call Trump's Bluff On NAFTA Renegotiation

It appears that there is a growing feeling within Mexican political circles that renegotiating NAFTA just may not be worth it. While Mexican President Nieto wants to expand any NAFTA renegotiation beyond just a discussion of trade to include migration, border control, and drug trafficking. There may be some interest in that approach within the Trump administration but Trump's seeming desire for excessive tariffs on Mexican goods is likely to derail any agreement. Another strain of thought within Mexican politics is to simply let Trump rip up the NAFTA agreement and not even bother to negotiate a new one. That would leave trade between Mexico and the US to be covered by current World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Estimates are that working under WTO rules would only raise US import prices by about 3% from where they are now. That is hardly enough to stop making Mexico an attractive place for manufacturing for export to the US. Jorge Castaneda, former foreign secretary, believes that Mexico actually has "a lot of chips to play" in negotiating with the US. His thinking is described this way in the Times article, "Let Mr. Trump pull the United States out of Nafta, he argues. Instead of stopping Central American migrants at its southern border, Mexico should let them through on their way to the United States. 'And let’s see if his wall keeps the terrorists out, because we won’t,' Mr. CastaƱeda added". I'm also guessing that China would happily step up to the plate and possibly include Mexico in whatever trade deal will replace TPP without the US, especially if Trump's belligerence toward China continues and increases.

A further complication for Trump is that the more he "punishes" Mexico, the further the Mexican peso falls, negating any positive effects of Trump's policies for the US and making Mexico still an attractive place for investment. On the other hand, there will come a point when the peso falls so much that it encourages capital flight out of the country and creates internal chaos, threatening the stability of the government. Having a revolution in a country on our southern border will not be good for American business and will be a real threat to our national security. The question is how hard Trump is willing to push and how much businesses and their allies in the GOP are willing to fight him.

Britain's Supreme Court Ruling Will Complicate And Possibly Delay Article 50 Invocation

Yesterday, Britain's Supreme Court ruled in an 8-3 decision that Parliament must vote to invoke Article 50 and begin the arduous task of negotiating the UK's exit from the EU. In addition, the Court unanimously decided that the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland did not have veto power over the Article 50 decision.

This decision somewhat complicates things for Theresa May, but it will probably just delay the inevitable invocation of Article 50. May promised to have a very targeted bill ready for Parliament perhaps as early as next week. At that point the games will begin. With the SNP clearly intending to vote against the bill and the Liberal Democrats also threatening to do the same unless Parliament gets to also vote on the final deal, the pressure will be on Labour to join them or not. While many Labour MPs may privately want to vote no, the constituents that many of them represent were clear supporters of the Brexit referendum. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said the party would not "frustrate the process" but would introduce amendments to the bill "to prevent the Conservative from using Brexit to turn Britian into a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe. Labour will seek to build in the principles of full, tariff-free access to the single market and maintenance of worker's rights and social and environmental protections". The SNP will probably be joining in these amendments as they have promised to submit fifty amendments to slow the process down. It also remains to be seen whether Conservatives who are nervous about a hard Brexit will also try to introduce amendments so that Parliament has more control over the details of the negotiations. In summary, it is clear that Parliament will eventually vote to invoke Article 50. The question is what additional oversight or restrictions Parliament will attach to that bill that will hinder May's free hand in negotiating with the EU, a negotiation where the EU already clearly has the upper hand.

This ruling also brings the UK one step closer to dissolution, increasing the chances that Scotland and Northern Ireland will leave. Nicola Sturgeon declared that this Court decision increases the likelihood of another referendum on Scottish independence and said that the promises made to Scotland about devolution "were not worth the paper they were written on". She continued, "It’s becoming clearer by the day that Scotland’s voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the U.K." In Northern Ireland, where the coalition government is still under pressure following Arlene Foster's survival of a "no confidence" vote in December, Gerry Adams said, "Brexit will undermine the institutional, constitutional and legal integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. Our stability and economic progress are regarded as collateral damage." The Court's decision not to allow the Northern Irish Parliament to vote has the potential to reignite the destructive sectarian divide.

The Court's decisions will just make the UK's exit from Europe more complicated but will still not derail Britain's to disaster.

Still No Real Evidence Trump Is Not Still The Nominal Head Of Trump Organization

This is yet another example of how Trump's continual lies and outrages deflect the press from focusing on any one outrage for any period of time. And, as with saw with Hillary's emails, it takes months and months of pounding on one issue to make a significant dent in the consciousness of the average American voter.

According to Representative Elijah Cummings, all those folders full of documents that Trump brought out as a prop at his press conference and that he claimed he had signed in order to turn over control of his businesses to his sons have not been turned over to the Office of Government Ethics. Reporters were not allowed to view those documents either. A prior report as of inauguration day (oops, I mean National Day of Patriotic Devotion) showed that the proper paperwork to change ownership to his sons had not actually been filed in the states where those companies are incorporated. The plan for change of ownership, of course, did nothing to resolve the massive conflict of interest issues that Trump has. But, as far as we know right now, he has not even taken that minimal step and is still nominally in charge of the Trump Organization.

All this is very reminiscent of Trump's bogus claim about his personal donation to veteran's groups earlier in the campaign, when he had done no such thing. He will make promises and the press assumes that he will keep his word. But he won't. This is the banana republic of Trump. The press will need to adjust to this new reality and quickly.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Schumer And Senate Democrats Already Disappoint

One would have hoped Democrats learned something from their GOP counterparts who were able to use the tactic of total obstruction during the Obama years to keep their party motivated and unified. And I want to believe that Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats are up to the task. I need to believe that Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats are up to the task. But we are still in the first week of the Trump administration and there are clear signs that Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats are not up to the task.

Mike Pompeo, now CIA Director, has left the door open to using torture again. According to Ron Wyden, he wants to create the largest surveillance system the US, or probably the world, has ever seen and he has lied and obfuscated to individual Senators on specific issues, essentially telling them what they want to hear. And yet, here is the list of Democratic Senators who voted to confirm Pompeo:

Joe Donnelly of Indiana
Dianne Feinstein of California
Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire
Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota
Tim Kaine of Virginia
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
Joe Manchin of West Virginia
Claire McCaskill of Missouri
Jack Reed of Rhode Island
Brian Schatz of Hawaii
Chuck Schumer of New York
Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire
Mark Warner of Virginia
Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island

At least every Democrat on the Foreign Relations committee voted against Rex Tillerson but we shall see what happens when he faces the full Senate.

Schumer and the Democrats also unveiled a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, in an apparent attempt to create a wedge between Trump and the GOP Congress. Trump met with building trade union leaders yesterday and promised them his big infrastructure investment, primarily by going ahead with DAPL and Keystone XL, while also conspicuously not committing to making sure that those construction workers get a competitive wage. It's hard to know what the this proposal really means for Democrats. If they let Trump and the GOP just pick off some their best ideas and then package it into the public/private partnership giveaway that Trump's infrastructure plan envisions and then some Democrats vote for that plan, how is that a win for Democrats? Trump will take credit for any and all jobs the infrastructure investment would create. And if they oppose the plan, the GOP and Trump will just brand Dems as hypocrites for voting against policies they actually proposed. Yes, Democrats need to have concrete policy proposals ready for the 2018 election, but no one will remember this plan by then.

If Schumer and the Democrats really want to drive a wedge between Trump and the GOP Congress, they need to throw away the traditional political playbook and play to Trump's insecurities. They should be out their calling him incompetent and impotent for not doing the things he has promised to do. He can't even fill enough positions in the federal government so that he has to retain Obama's people in those jobs. On day one, Trump promised to propose a constitutional amendment for term limits, a five-year ban on former Congressional officials lobbying, and a lifetime ban of former White House officials lobbying. Dems should be out there goading Trump, saying he is too weak to face up to the GOP Congress to actually keep those promises. If you attack his vanity and ego he will overreact. And when he does propose these actions, see how the Congressional GOP will run.

Calling on the GOP the denounce Trump's lies and voting for his unqualified cabinet nominees just isn't going to do the job. Schumer and the Democrats need to stand united against Trump and the GOP and start playing outside the box, just the way he does.

Aetna's Actions In Humana Merger Highlight Need For Antitrust And Public Option

Last August, Aetna decided to pull out of the Obamacare exchanges in 11 states, claiming they were losing money. This announcement was a big blow as Aetna was a significant provider and its departure left some states with health insurance competition levels below the lawful guidelines of the ACA. Of course, Trump and the Republicans leapt on this announcement as just another example that Obamacare was "collapsing".

There was, however, another theory about Aetna's actions that was explained more by what immediately preceded their announcement. Aetna was trying to merge with Humana, a smaller company in the health insurance industry and the Justice Department blocked that merger on antitrust grounds. It was only after that DOJ decision that Aetna suddenly announced they were losing money on the exchanges and decided to pull out of those 11 states. There was plenty of evidence out there that disputed Aetna's claim. On an earnings call in the spring where Aetna discussed their involvement in the exchanges, the company said, "We see this as a good investment, hoping that we have an administration and a Congress that will allow us to change the product like we change Medicare every year, and we change Medicaid every year." That surely does not sound like a company that was planning to pull out of that business just months later. Later, company documents filed in Pennsylvania, a state that Aetna pulled out of because they were "losing money", showed the firm had made $20 million in profits in the state in 2014 and 2015 and projected further gains in 2016 and 2017. Lastly, documents also showed that Aetna had threatened the DOJ that it would withdraw from Obamacare if the agency did not approve its merger with Humana. Incredibly, they actually made this threat in writing, saying, "[I]f the deal [with Humana] were challenged and/or blocked we would need to take immediate actions to mitigate public exchange and ACA small group losses. Specifically, if the DOJ sues to enjoin the transaction, we will immediately take action to reduce our 2017 exchange footprint .... [I]nstead of expanding to 20 states next year, we would reduce our presence to no more than 10 states .… [I]t is very likely that we would need to leave the public exchange business entirely and plan for additional business efficiencies should our deal ultimately be blocked. By contrast, if the deal proceeds without the diverted time and energy associated with litigation, we would explore how to devote a portion of the additional synergies ... to supporting even more public exchange coverage over the next few years."

Well, the DOJ did go ahead and sue to stop the merger and the decision was handed down by a federal judge yesterday upholding the DOJ's decision to not allow the merger on antitrust grounds. In addition, the judge found that Aetna was lying to the public about why it left the exchanges and was, actually, essentially trying to blackmail the DOJ into letting the merger go ahead. According to the LA Times article, "Aetna executives moved heaven and earth to conceal their decision-making process from the court, in part by discussing the matter on the phone rather than in emails, and by shielding what did get put in writing with the cloak of attorney-client privilege, a practice Bates [the federal judge] found came close to 'malfeasance'." When Aetna announced it was pulling out of the Florida exchange, the top Aetna executive in that state wrote an incredulous email to his superiors saying, "I just can't make sense of the Florida dec[ision]. Based on the latest run rate data...we are making money from the on-exchange business. Was Florida's performance ever debated?" He was told to phone his superiors in order not to "avoid leaving a paper trail".

Now you would think that a company that lied to the public and its shareholders about why it was leaving a profitable marketplace might be in for some kind of censure; that a company that tried to obstruct justice by hiding material from a federal court in what the judge clearly felt was nearly "malfeasance" would be subject to some kind of penalty; that a company that essentially was trying to blackmail an agency of the federal government would be up for some kind of investigation and/or indictment; but not in the corporate kleptocracy that we currently live in. Aetna was merely doing what business always does, "exploiting the opportunity". This time it will be a little harder to sell the line that it was trying to "maximize shareholder value ", since it actually pulled out of profitable business lines.

There are two important lessons for Democrats here. The first one is that vigilant antitrust enforcement is critical. No company should ever be allowed to get big enough that they feel they can blackmail the government. Breaking up the oligopolies that dominate our industries would be a huge job creator as just the corporate structure would have to be duplicated in the smaller companies that remain would automatically produce thousands of jobs. Breaking up the oligopolies will reduce the enormous barriers to entry that currently block startups and smaller companies that truly do provide cheaper and more efficient solutions from entering the market. Secondly, the next time Democrats get to do healthcare, it must contain the public option. In general, the public option is likely to be cheaper and more efficient, forcing the bigger insurance companies to actually compete. And when they threaten to pull out of the market like Aetna did, the government can simply say goodbye.


Trump Supporters Already Feeling Regrets

It's only day four of the Trump presidency and the regrets are already beginning for some Trump voters as they realize they have been conned just like everyone who took a Trump University course or actually contracts to do work on his hotels. Pity poor Melody Forbes, a young 25 year old from Arizona who voted for Trump in the mistaken belief that he would only focus on the issues he supposedly campaigned on, "creating jobs, making health care more affordable, and making our country great again. I voted for him because I trust him to get our economy moving again." I guess Melody really thought Trump would replace Obamacare with a program that would be just as good or better but cost far less. She never believed that he would rubber stamp the worst aspects of Republican policy, like cutting funding for Planned Parenthood. "Just like one in five women across the country, I went to Planned Parenthood here in Arizona in my 20s for health care. I was newly divorced, unemployed and uninsured, and I needed health services I could not otherwise afford", says Melody. She continues, "It doesn’t make any sense for Trump, who said he would defend the American people from politics as usual, to sign a bill like this. Millions of mostly low-income people who rely on Planned Parenthood for essential health care — such as birth control, cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, well-woman exams and more — would no longer have access within their communities. And people who already face outsized barriers to getting care, especially people of color and people in rural communities, would face additional hurdles." Melody will be happy to know that Trump will probably lower the cost of health insurance though, just as he pledged. The latest GOP plan seems to put the burden of covering as many, if not more, people that Obamacare did squarely on the states. The states could use their own discretion as to whether they would stay in the ACA or not and would continue to receive federal subsidies if they did so. Here's the rub, however. States could also opt out of the ACA and at that point the federal insurance standards of the ACA would no longer apply. I'm guessing Arizona would be opting out and that would give Melody the wonderful opportunity to buy health insurance for far less than she is probably paying now. It would cover the first $5,000 or so in health expenses but, after that, Melody would be on her own. One serious medical illness and it would be off to medical bankruptcy. But Trump would have delivered on his promise to make health care more affordable while at the same time denying them access by cutting funding for Planned Parenthood. As Melody says, "My vote for Trump was not a vote against Planned Parenthood." But that's what Melody is going to get. Now, she might have realized that a candidate who had fought her whole life to help and improve the lives of women and children would be better at protecting her health care than a serial sexual abuser. She might have realized that a candidate who was actually going to put more money in her pocket would help move the economy along and that expanding Medicare to those as young as 55 and increasing Obamacare subsidies would have brought the cost of health insurance down. But that candidate may not have been part of her tribe, or was just going to make America better instead of great again, or maybe it was something about emails that somehow persuaded Melody not to vote for her.

But Melody isn't the only one having second thoughts about supporting Trump and the Republicans. Companies that rely on trade with Mexico are also beginning to see the folly of their ways. Take the Kansas City Southern (KSU) railway company. During the 2016 campaign, the company's PAC sent over 85% of its donations to Republicans. I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps it really is the business executives' bias that Republicans are always good for business and Democrats are bad, despite what the candidates are actually saying. KSU operates an extensive railway line that extends deep into Mexico to ports on the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico and winds its way through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma before winding up at home base in Kansas City. The company actually calls this railway network, "the NAFTA railway". Like Melody, I guess KSU didn't really believe that Trump was going to renegotiate NAFTA, impose tariffs on goods coming from Mexico, and build that beautiful border wall. In any case, Trump just signed an executive order today to begin the process of renegotiating NAFTA. But perhaps all those contributions to GOP candidates will actually help in blunting these proposed actions by Trump or inoculating KSU from some of the worst aspects. On the other hand, the markets seem pretty sure that doing business in Mexico is going to be more difficult under a Trump administration. The company recently reported flat earning compared to last year and didn't offer much encouragement for the coming year, saying, "Looking ahead to 2017, the Company is aware of both economic and political uncertainty". (Do you remember the days when the GOP spent months accusing Obama of ruining business by creating "uncertainty". I'm pretty sure KSU would love to have those days back again.) The company's stock has fallen over 15% since Trump's election and the collapse of the Mexican peso, which is also related to Trump's election victory, has also badly hurt its bottom line as that is the currency in which a large part of its profits are made. As the Slate article nicely summarizes, "If your business model depended on the existence of NAFTA and a stable Mexico, enlightened self interest would have dictated supporting a centrist, free-trading Democrat for president and supporting pro-free trade Republicans and Democrats for Congress in equal measure. That's not what the business community did in 2016. That's not what Kansas City Southern did. And now it appears the NAFTA train is leaving the station."

As Trump and the GOP take a wrecking ball to the social safety net here in the US and destroy the international norms that have governed for decades, I think we will find more and more Trump supporters who find that they are on the short end of those changes and their regrets will grow. But it will probably be too late to prevent lots of damage before they get another chance to change what they have wrought. Trump is a salesman and a con artist so it is not surprising that he fooled some of his supporters and you have to feel sorry for them. But there were plenty of others who knew better but blindly believed he would only do what they wanted him to do and that the rest was just "rhetoric". It's hard to really feel sorry for those people.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Trump's Lies Bamboozle Media Again And Lay Groundwork For Future

The Women's March on Washington and its accompanying satellite marches around the country and the world could well have been the largest demonstration ever in US history. Close to 3.5 million Americans are estimated to have taken to the streets in over 500 US cities. Another quarter of a million people took part in protest in over 100 other cities around the world.

All this was just too much for President Trump to bear. Not only did he take to the usual twitter machine to lie about the fact that his inauguration was the most attended inauguration in history, he also decided that it was important to repeat these lies while standing in front of the CIA's memorial wall with stars of fallen officers who have anonymously given their lives to protect this country. (The fact that some of these stars represent CIA officials who have died in less than noble causes does nothing to demean the ultimate sacrifice that they made. It does demean and belittle the politicians who asked for that sacrifice.) If you expected Trump to have any respect for those stars and not use them as a prop for his own personal vendettas, then you have quickly forgotten his never-ending attacks on Khizr Khan and his gold star family during the campaign. It is that kind of short memory that Trump will continue to count on going forward. In addition, he apparently brought his own cheerleading section, just as he did with his press conference. This personal sycophantic Greek chorus clapped and cheered at the appropriate moments of Trump's speech, just as they did at his press conference. Those in the CIA were apparently appalled at Trump's lack of respect (it is hard to believe that anyone can still be appalled by Trump at this point; it should be expected) and worried about some of his concrete ideas in the speech such as perhaps going back into Iraq to take their oil.

On Saturday night, a still irate Trump dispatched Press Secretary Sean Spicer to once again go to the media and lie about the attendance at the inauguration and attack the media for deliberating trying to divide the country by not reporting that lie. That was followed up by a remarkable appearance on Meet The Press on Sunday by Kellyanne Conway who claimed that Spicer's lies were simply "alternate facts".

Despite all the hue and cry, the fact of that matter is that the media once again fell for Trump's bait. The reality is that his strategy of contemptuous and disrespectful lies dominated Sunday's coverage and limited, if not dwarfed, the coverage of the demonstrations against Trump. Every national reporter covering Trump needs to spend a day researching the tabloid wars between George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees, and the New York Mets in the 1980s. Steinbrenner, a convicted felon for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon and obstruction of justice, was a master at knocking any good news that the Mets could muster off the front pages with some outrageous statement or action. And those tabloid wars are where Trump learned to master the media, that any publicity, even bad, is actually good publicity if it takes away publicity from your opponents.

But Trump's attacks on the media also have the additional bonus of inoculating him from further bad press down the road. Just like his lies, they create enough doubt within at least a segment of his supporters of what the truth might actually be. As Krugman points out in his op-ed today, when the BLS reports some bad employment numbers, do we have any doubt that Trump will attack them as biased and incorrect. And he will attack the media at the same time from reporting those BLS numbers that he labels lies. Heck, he has already done that with his claim about the "true" unemployment rate. And the sycophants in his cabinet will apparently back him up, as Mnuchin did in his confirmation hearings.

The personal cheerleading section is designed to add to Trump's "cult of personality" which is really his primary political asset. His policy positions can change on a whim and his election largely rested on the fact that enough people felt he would "shake things up", accompanied by an erroneous assumption that he would leave those things alone that they liked. His own narcissistic personality demands the constant adulation that those cheerleaders provide.

Attacking and delegitimizing the media is the first step any authoritarian power takes. As Moises Naim, distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, populist leaders create an environment where "the results are the criminalization of political rivals and the delegitimization of the media. It's very important -- you know, they don't -- they start by denying the media the right -- they don't treat them as legitimate players, and they don't treat their political adversaries as legitimate players". We have seen that in spades from Trump. From "lock her up" to this speech at the CIA. And these authoritarian tendencies are reinforced by a Republican party that delegitimized Obama for the last eight years with unprecedented obstruction. Trump will provide that attacks on the media and the personality cult while the GOP, recognizing they are a really a minority party, will provide the authoritarian tools to maintain power.

The press needs to be aware of how Trump works and the long-term dangers that the country faces if they continue to do business as usual. If they continue to allow themselves to be played by Trump the way they did this weekend, they will find themselves to soon be an irrelevant force in our democracy.

Two Underwhelming Games Put Dominant Falcons And Patriots In Super Bowl

Well, those were two underwhelming conference championship games in the NFL yesterday. Both games were over by early in the third quarter, at the latest. So the Stupor Bowl match up will be the Patriots versus the Falcons in two weeks. During these interminable thirteen days, there will be more hot air than Donald Trump has produced in his entire presidential campaign as the pundits focus on a host of important and unimportant issues. When the Patriots double cover Julio Jones, as they successfully did with Antonio Brown, will the Falcons secondary receivers be able to step up? Or, can the Falcons run effectively enough to force the Patriots to bring a safety up and free Jones? Can the Falcons generate a pass rush on Tom Brady or will he be able to stand back there like a statue for six or seven seconds until a receiver comes open like he was able to do against the Packers? Will the Patriots defense be able to bend but not break against the NFL's most potent offense? Will either defense be able to stop the other's offense? Will the Falcons fall victim to Super Bowl nerves? The Patriots have mostly been there and done that. What off-field incident is going to effect which team? All these and many other issues that neither you or I could even conjure will be hashed to death in the coming two weeks. My advice would be to ignore all of it.

There's really only one thing you need to know before the game actually gets played. The Patriots will be highly motivated and could care less about who they are actually playing. For them, it is all about revenge for Deflategate. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who is going for a record fifth Super Bowl victory, would love nothing more than to force Roger Goodell to hand them the championship trophy and then be able to give a big middle finger to the NFL brass. That is really the only storyline you need to know until the game begins.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Enough Politics, Let's Recap What's Up At Australian Open

I guess I've had enough of Trump and it's only day two of his presidency. So let's talk some tennis. Down under at the Australian Open, the top seeds have been dropping like flies, starting in the second round. First, the oft-injured Denis Istomin, ranked 117th in the world, took out #2 seed Novak Djokovic in five fabulous sets. Both players displayed their high level of play in a first set that lasted nearly an hour and a half and ended up with Istomin coming back to win the tiebreak 10-8. Istomin followed that historic win up with another 5 set victory against the #30 seed Pablo Carreno Busta. The second round was no kinder for the #3 women's seed, Aga Radwanska, who was simply crushed by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 6-3, 6-2.

Roger Federer returned to Grand Slam action after an over six month layoff to recover from surgery and simply let his body rejuvenate after a decade and half on tour. Federer's draw allowed him to get a couple of winnable matches under his belt before he ran into a true quality opponent, although on the men's tour virtually every opponent is easily capable of winning on any given day. In the third round, Federer's faced #10 seed Tomas Berdych who has occasionally give Fed some problems. But Federer was in old form and dispartched Berdych in 3 routine sets that took just 90 minutes. His reward was to play the #5 seed Kei Nishikori. Fed may be just a fraction of a step slower than in his prime but he never let Nishikori ever really get comfortable during the entire match. In the end, Federer was actually the fitter of the two as Nishikori had some hip problems and Fed prevailed 6-3 in the fifth set after nearly three and a half hours.

Federer had some real motivation in this match because the draw had the winner playing #1 seed Andy Murray in round 4. But another oft-injured journeyman, Mischa Zverev capitalized on Andy Murray's sub-par play do to the ankle he twisted in the prior round, taking out the tournament favorite in just four sets. In the third round, Mischa's younger brother and budding phenom, Alexander, jumped out to a two sets to one lead against Rafa Nadal but started to cramp up in the fifth set and eventually lost 4-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2. Women's #1 seed Angie Kerber followed Murray to the exit with a lackluster 6-2, 6-3 loss to Coco Vandeweghe who simply overpowered her. Coco had survived a tough three setter in the prior round, coming from a break down in the third to beat the resurgent Eugenie Bouchard. It has been an underwhelming start to the season for Kerber who may be feeling the pressure of defending her #1 position in the rankings as well as the drain of the off-court responsibilities and opportunities that comes with it. This pretty well opens the tournament up for Serena Williams to finally get her 23rd Grand Slam victory to break the tie for second place all-time with Steffi Graf.

If Coco Vandeweghe can keep it together mentally, which is a big if, it could set up an all-American final against Serena and a clash of two of the biggest servers and hitters on the women's tour. As for the American men, despite some promising wins early on, only two American men survived until the third round, Jack Sock and Sam Querrey. Querrey was summarily dispatched by Murray while Sock played Tsonga close for three sets before succumbing in four.

The quality and depth in men's tennis today is simply phenomenal. Even the top players have to work incredibly hard to simply win a point especially on this Australian Open surface, as the first set of the Djokovic-Istomin match so clearly illustrated. The roster of players who are still alive in the tournament today is full of talented, powerhouse players: Federer, Nadal, Wawrinka, the French pair of Monfils and Tsonga, Raonic, who has kind of flown under the radar so far, the up and coming Dominic Thiem, and the resurgent  Gregor Dmitrov as well as Istomin and Zverev. Besides Istomin and Zverev, you wouldn't be surprised if any one of these made it to the final. It all sets up for a fun and exciting second week down under.

NY Times Belatedly Admits Error In Not Reporting Trump-Russia Connections

Liz Spayd has issued another apologia for the NY Times in yet another attempt to belatedly absolve the "newspaper of record" from yet another incomprehensible and irresponsible editorial decision. Previously, Spayd was forced to admit that the Times excessive focus on ethical improprieties at the Clinton that reporters continued to imply but never were able to substantiate or document was "not good journalism" but was the result of "journalists losing perspective on a line of reporting they’re heavily invested in.". As it turned out, there were never any issues with the Clinton Foundation while there was loads of illegal activity within the far smaller Trump Foundation, as Kurt Eichenwald over at Newsweek and David Farenthold at the Washington Post, who both actually did some real reporting as opposed to generic hit pieces, so aptly detailed during the campaign.

This latest apology concerns the Times' decision to not publish stories regarding the connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. In fact, there were actually three different threads that connected Trump directly to Russia and its efforts to disrupt the election that the Times was investigating. Says Spayd, "One vein of reporting centered on a possible channel of communication between a Trump organization computer server and a Russian bank with ties to Vladimir Putin. Another source was offering The Times salacious material describing an odd cross-continental dance between Trump and Moscow. The most damning claim was that Trump was aware of Russia’s efforts to hack Democratic computers, an allegation with implications of treason." Spayd also admits that the Times' reporters, while never ever to find conclusive proof for any of these accusations, were able to corroborate pieces of them. In fact, the FBI essentially confirmed the existence of an investigation into a direct connection from Trump's campaign to the Russians by asking the paper to withhold publishing a story about it. According to Spayd, "At one point, the F.B.I. was so serious about its investigation into the server that it asked The Times to delay publication. Meanwhile, reporters had met with a former British intelligence officer who was building the dossier. While his findings were difficult to confirm, Times reporting bore out that he was respected in his craft. And of his material that was checkable, no significant red flags emerged." Yet, despite vigorous internal discussions, editor Dean Baquet refused to run any of these stories.

Spayd admits that his was a significant error, saying, "I believe a strong case can be made that The Times was too timid in its decisions not to publish the material it had." I'm sure that is great comfort to Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Spayd clearly places the blame for the Times' decision not to publish on influence from government officials. Although she does not name specific individuals, it is clear that James Comey was responsible for pressuring the Times not to run these stories. Says Spayd, "There is an unsettling theme that runs through The Times’s publishing decisions. In each instance, it was the actions of government officials that triggered newsroom decisions — not additional reporting or insight that journalists gained."

In summary, the NY Times somehow got itself roped into pursuing story lines that were outlined in a Steve Bannon-funded propaganda book about the Clinton Foundation called "Clinton Cash". That was a deal with the devil that the Times apparently committed to without any prior reporting of its own and ended up driving the relentless stories that implied corruption and pay-to-play by Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation but never uncovering any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, actual reporting by the Times' own reporters that indicated connections between the Trump campaign and Russia were never run because the Times' editor felt there was no "proof".  He was assisted in this effort by the treasonous James Comey who was apparently pressuring the Times not to run these stories. At the same time, Comey was publicly commenting on the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails that turned up nothing that turned out to be illegal. And Comey topped that off with the infamous letter about the Abedin emails that effectively threw the election to Trump.


Border Agents Refuse Entry To Foreigners Who Oppose Trump

It only took one day in office for Trump to boost our border security, just like he promised. Apparently, in a new, Trumpian, interpretation of our immigration laws it is not just illegal immigrants border security will be cracking down on, as though they haven't been doing that all along. Now, it appears, that we will not allow legal visitors to come to this country if they might disagree with Donald Trump. Visitors from Canada who were coming down to Washington DC to join the march, or even go to the inauguration and the march, were denied entry into the United States, held at the border, and then released with the admonition that they would need to obtain a visa to enter the US going forward. Some had their cars and phones searched and were fingerprinted and photographed. Others were told they would be arrested if they tried to enter the US in the next few days or months. One Canadian reported being interrogated about his political beliefs with respect to Trump. According to the man, "The first thing he [the border agent] asked us point blank is, ‘Are you anti- or pro-Trump?’...It felt like, if we had been pro-Trump, we would have absolutely been allowed entry." I wonder how many Muslims have already been denied entry in a similar manner, simply because of their faith. I will leave it up to the ingenuity of Justin Trudeau to come up with the proper retaliation for this attack on Canadian citizens to exercise their right of travel to the US.