Saturday, February 4, 2017

Trump Lashes Out As Bureaucracy, Judiciary Restrains Him

As Masha Gessen warned, it is easy to fall into the trap of normalization when it comes to Donald Trump's behavior. I have warned about it in many posts over the last few months. Yet even I just treated Trump's twitter storm against the District Court judge's nationwide suspension of the Muslim ban as just Trump being Trump. It wasn't until reading outraged reactions from others that I realized how dangerous Trump's comments were and how easily I had fallen into the habit of just normalizing Trump's behavior.

Apparently, the State Department and the DHS are complying with the court order even as Trump goes on the rampage against the judge And he's not letting it go, following up with even more tweets later today. Here is the sum of his tweets, "When a country is no longer able to say who can, and who cannot , come in & out, especially for reasons of safety &.security - big trouble!";"The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!";"What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?" This kind of attack on the judicial branch by the executive branch is unprecedented in modern times. But, with Trump, it takes on the guise of normal and even expected.

You can see why Kelly at Homeland Security and Mattis at Defense were overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate as they were clearly going to provide some sane bureaucratic limitations on Trump and his alter-ego, Bannon. In fact, a report in today's Washington Post indicates that Kelly and Bannon had a stand-off over the Muslim ban's inclusion of green card holders. On the Saturday night immediately after the Muslim ban was announced, Kelly decided to issue a waiver for all green card holders from the seven effected countries. Bannon apparently went to Kelly's office at the DHS and ordered him not to issue the waiver. Kelly, ever the military man, respectfully told Bannon he did not report to him, he reported to the President. Later that evening, having not heard from the President, Kelly went ahead and issued the order which was publicly announced on Sunday. That did not stop Bannon from still pushing the issue. A 2am Sunday phone call pitted Bannon and his sidekick Stephen Miller against Kelly, Mattis, Tillerson (who had yet to be confirmed as Secretary of State), and national security adviser Flynn. Kelly, Mattis, and Flynn are all ex-military and stressed the need for proper coordination with the agencies responsible and Tillerson supported them. Later on Sunday, a larger meeting which include Kushner, Priebus, and finally Trump himself agreed to a more coordinated process of involving cabinet agencies going forward.

In many ways, this battle reflects the difference in attitudes between owners of private companies and those who have to work in collaborative organizations, such as government and the military. Trump, Bannon, Kushner, and many in Trump's billionaire cabinet inhabit worlds where whatever they decide or say goes. Yes, there is some input form others and some political infighting but they know they hold the ultimate power. That is far different from the generals who have spent years managing and maneuvering complex bureaucracies. In standing up to Bannon and winning, Kelly won the first skirmish in what will be a constant battle with Trump and Bannon.

The question is how Trump and Bannon will react when they see themselves as being constantly thwarted, either by the executive bureaucracy or the judicial branch. As we can see from these tweets today, Trump is not taking it well. The question is how far is he willing to go. Trump's firing of the acting Attorney General is not a positive indicator.

More importantly it is clear that the battle to save our democracy has been joined. Career bureaucrats had already started their fight but now it has been joined by Trump appointees. The legal system is standing firm so far even as it is under attack. And Republicans in Congress are facing a backlash they can't believe. So, yes, there are glimmers of hope and our institutions are working. But as I myself experienced, it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is normal and that our institutions are working and will save us. It ain't necessarily so. It will take constant vigilance and relentless resistance.

Roberts Medicaid Expansion Opt Out Makes GOP Block Grant Plan More Difficult

In an irony worth savoring, it looks like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' kowtowing to the Republican right will actually make the GOP's plan to roll back Medicaid that much more difficult. When the whole ACA law came up before the Supreme Court, the four usual suspects on the right voted against it all. Roberts sided with the liberals but his one exception was to allow the states to opt out of Medicaid expansion. (The votes are slightly more complicated than that, but it is generally the gist).

Now that the GOP has total control, they want to block-grant Medicaid to the states, which would allow states to slowly chip away at Medicaid support and give them greater leeway over how they spend the money. In red states, that would probably mean the money is used less for tradition Medicaid and more for partisan pet projects. Additionally, the block grant will never keep up with the rate of medical inflation so slowly but surely Medicaid would erode away.

However, since so many of the red states opted out of Medicaid expansion, that now means that blue states have far more Medicaid recipients. Since block-granting would require the grants to be based on actual Medicaid enrollees, red states would actually see a cut in their Medicaid grants while blue state would receive more. On the other hand, if they just revert to the pre-Obamacare levels of Medicaid, the few red states that did expand would now see a cut as would those blue states. Either way, some red states will see cuts. The GOP representative in charge of coming up with a block grant solution says, "What I thought was going to be easy was I thought Medicaid, we’d just block-grant it to the states. That one actually is going to be a little harder than I thought. The reason is there are states like New York, states that expanded [Medicaid]. How do you cover that 10 or so million people on Medicaid?" Of course, this doesn't necessarily stop the GOP from going ahead with the block-grant plan, but it is somewhat amusing to see them struggle with the issue of who to essentially screw.

If only John Roberts hadn't allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, none of this would be an issue now. The GOP could go right ahead with their block grant plan without any cuts to red states. Instead, Roberts threw a bone to the right wing and now the GOP in Congress is choking on it. In these dark days, there is some delight in that irony.

Natural Weekends

Friday, February 3, 2017

Tax Breaks, Foreign Influence Explains Trump's Support For Johnson Amendment Repeal

Kevin Drum points out the Trump's plan to repeal the Johnson amendment will open the door for even more illegal campaign contributions and potential foreign influence. While I doubt Trump has any idea about the details of the Johnson amendment, the GOP's basic complaint about it is that it supposedly restricts the free speech rights of ministers. The amendment is a provision in the US tax code that prohibits non-profit organizations that receive tax-exempt status, which primarily includes charitable foundations, universities, and churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates and other political campaign activities. Of course, it's not like religious leaders have had any problem signaling their political beliefs even while this amendment was in place (see Franklin Graham.)

The subversive part of repealing the Johnson amendment is that it opens the door for more ways to funnel hidden money into election campaigns. And it opens the door to even more foreign meddling in US elections. Churches are not required to list their donors so foreign governments could just pour money into some front church that they pay some American to set up and, voila, they have access to influence our elections. Of course, turning over more power for foreign governments to influence our elections may be a feature for Trump. What is possibly even more insidious is what it opens up for wealthy Americans. As Dean Baker points out, using that same church front, a wealthy American could give $100 million to the church and receive a $40 million tax break for doing so. The church could then use that $100 million to actively promote the campaign of the individual giver. In essence, taxpayers would be subsidizing campaigns for the wealthy individuals. And the added benefit is Trump can pretend he is protecting the free speech rights of ministers, preferably Christian. No wonder this has such great appeal for Trump.

GOP Takes Us Back To 2007, Ignores The Future

In early June of 2016, I wrote that the Republican legislative agenda was basically to roll back everything that the Obama administration had done. It had virtually no forward-looking proposals at all. Now that they are in power, they are going to make good on those promises to their corporate overlords.

Employing a rarely used law, the Congressional Review Act, that was passed in the mid-1990s that allows Congress to repeal federal regulations made since mid-June of 2016 with a simple majority vote and the President's signature, the Senate and the House separately repealed two Obama-era initiatives. These bills will be passed by the other house of Congress today and probably signed by Trump before the weekend is out.

The House repealed the Stream Protection Rule that protected the nation's waterways from pollution created by surface mining. The rule essentially made the coal mining technique of mountaintop removal uneconomic. The GOP had called the rule an attack on coal mining companies and they will claim that the repeal of this law will bring back coal mining jobs. That is highly dubious since wind and solar energy alternatives are now even cheaper than the already depressed price of coal. It will be a gift to the coal mining companies who can possibly go back to destroying the environment to squeeze out the last remaining dollars from a dying industry.

In the Senate, the GOP claimed that oil and gas companies were being put at a competitive disadvantage due to the Resource Extraction Rule that required publicly traded oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. This rule had already been adopted in the EU, the UK, and Canada and the US was actually a latecomer in adopting it, partly due to legal challenges and delaying tactics by the companies being regulated. Repealing this rule will have three negative impacts. First, it will basically allow US oil, gas, and mineral companies to bribe foreign officials in order to obtain licenses and permits. Of course, we know that will never happen. Second, without this kind of disclosure, the citizens of the countries' whose resources are being extracted will have a harder time keeping their government accountable for the revenue generated by these deals since they will now not necessarily have any information about them. Lastly, it could actually have negative implications for investments in the oil, gas, and mining companies. Investors will be flying blind without this information and their returns could be wiped out if, in fact, a bribery scandal is uncovered.

Yesterday, the House repealed a Social Security Administration rule that reported disability patients with mental disorders to the national gun background check system, with the idea that you may want to raise some sort of red flag when a mentally ill person wants to buy a gun. Specifically, the rule did not prevent mentally ill people from buying a gun, it simply added their name to the background check system. Six Democrats voted for this repeal and they really should all be primaried.

A Wall Street Journal article today says that the Trump administration is looking to roll back the Dodd-Frank legislation that attempted to reform the financial industry after the financial collapse which nearly brought the world economy to its knees. One of the successes of Dodd-Frank was the requirement for banks and large financial firms to increase their capital in order to better withstand a collapse like 2008. In addition, the law has reduced trading revenues and increased lending, which really is the point of a financial industry, isn't it. In usual Trumpian bloviating, he will sign an Executive Order announcing his intention to roll back the law. In actuality, it will be difficult to do that and he will need the help of Democrats to do so.

But one gift he can give his Wall Street cronies is to use the CRA to repeal another rule that required financial advisers to act in the best interest of their client. Prior to this rule, financial advisers could present recommendations of suitable investments that paid higher fees and higher commissions when there were clearly similar investments with lower fees and lower commissions available. The Obama rule prevented that practice and required the financial adviser to present a range of suitable investments that included the low fee, low commission option. This prevented millions of investors from getting the maximum return while lining the pockets of the financial industry and its salesmen. The new rule would have created a race to the bottom as financial services companies would have to really compete on fees and commissions. Which is, of course, why Republicans will repeal it.

There will be more atrocities to come, you can be sure. But, with the exception of maybe a few hundred jobs in the coal industry, it is hard to see how any of these move by Republicans will help bring back jobs or put money in the wallets of working and middle class Americans. They are simply big gifts to major corporations. And, rather than providing any forward-looking legislation that will help American workers deal with the technological challenges ahead of them, the GOP is simply taking us back to 2007.

Another Solid Unemployment Report But Not Enough For March Rate Hike

Another pretty solid unemployment report today as the US economy added 227,000 jobs in the month of January. The unemployment rate remained at 4.8%. There were, however, downward revisions of a combined 39,000 jobs for the prior months of November and December. Hourly earnings continued to rise, going up 3 cents in January. In the prior month, those hourly earning were up 6 cents.

Although the report was above consensus, it is doubtful that this will prompt the Fed to move forward with another rate increase in March. The hawks will be squawking about those rising hourly earnings but I just do see enough here to move the committee as a whole. In addition, the chaotic opening weeks of the Trump administration has raised uncertainty and increased global downside risks substantially. That alone will probably far outweigh any impact of another solid, yet unremarkable, employment report.

Merkley Nails It On SCOTUS Nomination

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley's op-ed in the NY Times today gets it exactly right on the Gorsuch nomination to the Supreme Court, hitting all the important points about how Republicans have committed a "crime against our Constitution" and that the GOP, in essence, has already used the nuclear option by refusing to give a hearing to Merrick Garland and, in potentially dropping the threshold to confirm to 51 votes, the GOP would just be continuing its "disregard for Senate tradition and the integrity of the Supreme Court". In addition, Merkley makes it clear that there will be retribution down the road for what the GOP has already done to the process of confirming a Supreme Court justice.  Read his whole piece in full but here are some highlights:

"Senate Republicans are in the middle of pulling off one of the great political heists in American history: the theft of a seat on the United States Supreme Court."

"This crime against our Constitution began when Justice Antonin Scalia died nearly a year ago. Senate Republicans decided that day, before President Barack Obama even nominated a candidate to fill the seat, that they would reject their constitutional duty to provide 'advice and consent' on any nominee he put forward."

"Moreover, if the strategy of stealing a seat succeeds, it’s a precedent that will haunt us each time we have a vacancy on the court."

"Some have argued that insisting on the 60-vote requirement will simply cause the Republicans to exercise the so-called nuclear option, lowering the required support to a simple majority of 51. This is certainly a possibility, since the Republicans have already shown such disregard for Senate tradition and the integrity of the Supreme Court."

"But I see accepting this nomination as going along with a different nuclear option, one the Republicans have already exercised...Furthermore, lowering the required vote threshold will not be such an easy decision for the Republicans, because the day will come when Democrats control both the White House and the Senate. Rest assured Republicans will wish the nuclear option had not been invoked."

"Categorical opposition to this nomination is not retribution for the treatment of Judge Garland. It is a refusal to be party to a tactic that will deeply hurt the Supreme Court and, consequently, the rule of law...I am not prepared to be complicit in the undermining of our government."

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Democrats Need A Unified Approach To Gorsuch Nomination

I got some pushback on my post yesterday about Dianne Feinstein essentially accepting the GOP narrative about Merrick Garland. My point, which I did not make clearly enough or explicitly enough, was more about the Democrats' inability to frame things in a way that can help them. I have written many times about how the Republicans always manage to frame an issue far better and with more consistency than Democrats. Now that Democrats have no levers of power, they need to learn those lessons quickly.

Rachel Maddow had David Leonhart from the NY times on last night to discuss the article he wrote yesterday. In that article, Leonhart laid out the message that every Democratic Senator needs to play from on the Gorsuch nomination. Says Leonhart, "It’s important to remember just how radical — and, yes, unprecedented — the Senate’s approach to the previous Supreme Court nominee was...The refusal was a raw power grab. Coupled with Republican hints that no Hillary Clinton nominee would be confirmed either, it was a fundamental changing of the rules: Only a party that controlled both the White House and the Senate would now be able to assume it could fill a Supreme Court vacancy...Democrats should not weigh this nomination the same way that they’ve weighed previous ones. This one is different. The presumption should be that Gorsuch does not deserve confirmation, because the process that led to his nomination was illegitimate...Democrats simply cannot play by the old set of rules now that the Republicans are playing by a new one. The only thing worse than the system that the Republicans have created is a system in which one political party volunteers to be bullied."

While I may not agree with some of the other points he makes in his article, these are the key points Democrats need to make over and over. If Democrats feel Gorsuch is too extreme and do not give him enough votes to cross the 60 vote margin, it will be Republicans who will be making another unprecedented power grab by invoking the nuclear option. The GOP has already broken the process for approving a Supreme Court judge. Using the nuclear option would break the process permanently and McConnell and the Republicans need to be made to own it. That requires unified messaging from Democrats.

In addition, any time a Republican Senator says something along the lines that "the people spoke in  the last election and they chose Donald Trump and therefore, Trump should be able get his nominee approved", the Democrats should point out that, yes, the people did speak and they gave 3 million more votes to Trump's Democratic opponent and 10 million more people voted against Trump than voted for him. In fact, the will of the people has been thwarted twice by Republicans in regard to the Court. Once, by refusing to allow Obama's nominee to even get a hearing and now by ignoring the will of the majority of voters in the last election. If Republicans really want to honor the will of the people, they should get Trump to nominate Merrick Garland again.

The Gorsuch nomination is also a chance to attack the bogus Federalist Society spin about an "originalist" reading of the Constitution. An originalist reading of the Constitution shows that the drafters of the Constitution envisioned that the document would conceivably protect many more rights in the future than they enumerated. It was the recognition of that fact that led to the "equal protection" clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. Does Gorsuch agree with that? Where in an originalist reading of the Constitution is a corporation afforded the protections of the First Amendment? Where in a orginalist reading of the Constitution does it say the certain (wealthy) people are entitled to more free speech than others? And Democrats should never allow Gorsuch to dodge a question by saying he refuses to comment because he might have to rule on the issue. The easiest way to do that is tom make him explain his prior decisions, which provide plenty of ammunition. And don't let him get a pass on his youthful fascination with fascism and his admiration for war criminal Henry Kissinger and his statement "the illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer".

Finally, it might have been nice if Leonhart and the Times had spent a little more time pounding away at this unprecedented power grab by Republicans during the campaign. Perhaps they should focus on the other extreme threats to our democracy. If we get to the 2020 election, which, incredibly, is not a sure thing, what do they think will happen to this country if Trump squeaks by again in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by millions again.

Trump Threatens Stability That Allows US Business To Thrive

I'm guessing some of Trump's and Republicans' enablers in the business community are getting a little bit nervous and we are less than two weeks into this shambolic administration. Needless to say, the tech gurus are already up in arms about the Muslim ban as they rely on foreign talent for their business. Business and finance leaders are beginning to realize that Trump/Bannon's priorities don't really align with theirs, despite their unfounded belief during the campaign. At least they still have the GOP Congress in their pocket.

Matt Levine over at Bloomberg has a story that describes how reality is starting to dawn on business leaders about the real direction of the Trump/Bannon administration. During the campaign, the renegade billionaire Silicon Valley exec and current holder of New Zealand citizenship which required him to take an oath to "be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of New Zealand", said during the campaign that Trump should be taken "seriously but not literally". As Levine notes, "Everything Trump literally said is coming literally true; everything the serious people heard remains an unserious hope. Businesses may eventually get the tax and regulatory reform they wanted, but it’s not a priority. The technology industry, the financial industry, and some others are beginning to figure this out".

Levine also make the critical point that Trump's illegal executive orders threaten the very foundation of American business. The reason the US markets are so popular and respected around the world is because investors feel safe that the rule of law will be enforced. Their business interests in the US will not be nationalized or forced to be turned over to cronies of the President. That faith is currently being tested. Says Levine, "If the president can, without consulting the courts or Congress, banish U.S. lawful permanent residents, then he can do anything. If there’s no rule of law for some people, there’s no rule of law for anyone. Business leaders are waking up to that reality".

Meanwhile, business and finance leaders also need to be prepared for harmful policies for the fringe element of the Republican Congress, especially the House. We all know the Wall Street billionaire's club that is more than adequately represented in Trump's cabinet wants to roll back the increased capital requirements imposed by Basel III and Dodd-Frank. But I'm not sure that attacking the Federal Reserve and basically telling that agency to no longer engage in discussions and negotiations with the Financial Stability Board in the UK and the Basel Committee on Banking and Supervision is the way to go about it, as chief deputy whip in the House, Patrick McHenry, has ordered the Fed to do in this letter. In fact, it might be the quickest way to have the EU limit access to that single market for US banks as they are already planning to do to the UK banks under Brexit. Nothing would surprise me, but I think you have to be a little more subtle and leave room for negotiation than McHenry did. After this salvo on the Fed, I'm also pretty sure that extremist Republicans in the House and the Senate will start rumbling about "auditing the Fed". All of this is going to make central bankers and the banking system around the world even more jittery and add to the global instability the Trump administration is already creating.

In addition, the rollback of the Resource Extraction Rule which would essentially allow US companies to bribe foreign officials by removing oversight may actually create a backlash that some companies may not be prepared for. As the article points out, "if Congress does indeed apply CRA and overturn the SEC’s ill-fated resource extraction issuers' disclosure rules, less information will be available about energy and other companies in extractive industries subject to the SEC’s disclosure regime compared to those companies that must follow regulations set by the EU, Canada, or the UK." Of course, the oil and mining companies will love this and so will Putin and other kleptocratic dictators around the world. But I'm not so sure this will provide the competitive advantage for US companies that the House Majority Leader believes. 

As the Levine's article notes, "The reason the U.S. is a good place to do business is that, for the past two centuries, it’s built a firm foundation on the rule of law. President Trump almost undid that in a weekend. That’s bad for business". And it's only week two. I'm pretty sure business leaders are already longing for the good old ways when Obama's "uncertainty" was making it impossible to do business.

An additional complication is the fact that Trump will individually target their business if they oppose or confront him. Again Levine, "Many grouse in private about the impact of Trump’s actions but are afraid to speak out publicly. 'They are scared out of their minds about being attacked,' wrote Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, 'and what that’s going to do for their business'. When the president can damage your business with a tweet—and will, if you disagree with him publicly—then dissent is more difficult."

It Will Happen Here

It will happen here. It has already happened in Canada. Someone will get killed by a racist Trump supporter. In Canada, Alexandre Bissonnette shot six people to death and injured 19 in an attack on the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec. The attack occurred just a day after Trump's Muslim ban went into full effect. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the shootings a"terrorist attack on Muslims." Bissonnette was described as a supporter of Trump and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right National Front in France. According to Salon, he "has expressed far-right, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and pro-Israel view" and a friend said "He really liked Trump and had a permanent grudge against the left".  Initially, Bissonnette was arrested along with a Muslim who police later determined had nothing to do with the attacks and was even attempting to save some of those shot. But that didn't stop Fox (Faux) News from running with the story that it was a terrorist attack by a Muslim, proving Trump's Muslim ban was needed. Justin Trudeau had to shame the network into retracting that story. Even Trump's Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to capitalize on the shooting to support Trump's Muslim ban.

In the US, in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of Trump's Muslim ban, the Islamic Center of Victoria, Texas was destroyed by a fire that is still under investigation. Three weeks earlier, an Islamic Center in Austin that was under construction was also destroyed by fire.

But it is not just Muslims who are under attack, although they seem to be the primary target. Simple opposition to Trump is enough to get you attacked. In Seattle, a man who was protesting the appearance of a right wing flamethrower at the University of Washington was shot in the stomach by an angry Trump supporter. Incredibly, the shooter turned himself in but was released "in consultation with the prosecuting attorney’s office". Meanwhile the victim has undergone multiple surgeries.

In New York City, two people protesting another right wing provocateur, James O'Keefe, were choked, stomped, and thrown down a flight of stairs. In addition, one of the two protesters had his phone and camera stolen. Again, according to the Huffington Post article, "Police made no arrests and a spokesman said the injured men were not assaulted at the location of the O’Keefe party. The spokesman said police were called to settle a harassment complaint, not for an assault".

Finally, Trump's Holocaust denial in his statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day has brought the anti-semites out in force. White nationalist Richard Spencer praised Trump for his "de-Judification" of the Holocaust and saying that Jewish activists refuse to recognize the Holocaust was "just another genocide".

In the few months since Trump's election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes around the country, has documented over a thousand incidents. Trump is the darkness that has let the roaches come out from the shadows. And someone will die because of it. Don't tell me that the threat of fascism is overblown.

Trump Alienates Enemies And Allies With Equal Ease

Yesterday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said the Trump administration is putting Iran "on notice" due to Iran's test of a ballistic missile and an apparent attack on a Saudi vessel by a group supported by Iran. He said such actions by Iran "undermine security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East that puts American lives at risk". The Pentagon reported that the missile test failed but was considered a provocation to test the Trump administration. Iranian leaders have already made public statements that Trump is out of his depth and Iranian President Rouhani said, "He has been in a different world. It's a totally new environment to him. It will take him a long time and will cost the United States a lot, until he learns what is happening in the world". He added that Trump's Muslim ban shows "what they [Americans] have in their heart". As expected, the administration over-reacted with this harsh response and no one seems to know, least of all the Trump administration, what "on notice" means. Trump followed up Flynn's nonsensical statement with an aggressive tweet of his own, saying, "Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the U.S. has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!". I'm sure the hardliners in Tehran are drooling at the prospect of Trump overreacting and giving them a chance to scrap the nuclear agreement and restart that program. It appears Trump will easily fall into the trap.

Meanwhile, in an underreported story and one that the Trump administration has not seen worthy to comment on, Russia has begun intensifying its attacks on Ukraine including a massive cyber attack. As the Washington Post article says, "Could it have been just a coincidence that Russian-backed forces in Ukraine launched their biggest offensive in months the day after Vladi­mir Putin spoke by phone with President Trump? Somehow, we doubt it." So do I. The article posits that Putin is miffed that Trump seems to have backed away from the rumored lifting of the sanctions, reportedly at the urging of Theresa May, and is now stepping up the pressure on Trump with this Ukrainian aggression. Trump, the master of deflection, may be able to dodge this issue for a little while but it will be impossible to ignore if Putin continues these attacks. At that point, Trump will face a difficult decision on whether to give Putin what he wants or, less likely, see the Russia hawks in the GOP Congress finally find a spine.

Of course, one of the reasons that the Trump administration may be unwilling to speak out about Putin's aggression is Flynn himself. Democrats have sent a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis to investigate whether Flynn has violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by accepting payments for foreign governments as a retired Army officer. Apparently, retired military officers are covered by that constitutional clause. As the letter states, "Since his retirement in 2014, General Flynn has made appearances on Russia Today (RT), that country's state-sponsored propaganda outlet. He has admitted to being paid on at least one of these occasions - at an RT gala in Moscow where he dined with Russian President Vladimir Putin". As every worker in America knows, you don't get too far by criticizing the guy who writes your check. But at least Flynn has powerful company in violating the Emoluments Clause.

In addition, new details are coming out about Trump's "calls" with world leaders since his inauguration. While the White House has produced fairly anodyne summaries of the call, insiders are reporting that Trump has been his usual egotistical and belligerent self with some foreign leaders. On his call with Mexican President Pena Nieto, unbelievably Trump said this, "You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it". Is it any wonder that Pena Nieto refused to meet with Trump after a threat like that. And it is no wonder that elements within the Mexican government feel that they should let Trump rip up NAFTA and let the US deal with the drug and Central American refugee problem, while Mexico will just live under existing WTO rules. Even under those rules, Mexico would be an attractive investment option especially with the drop in the peso following Trump's election.

You may think that this is just Trump posturing and bullying to gain a negotiating advantage with the Mexicans. If you do, then you should read about his call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, one of our staunchest allies. After starting the call by listening to Trump crow about his electoral victory, Turnbull tried to confirm whether a prior agreement that would allow for 1,250 refugees from an Australian refugee center to come to the US would still be honored even after Trump's Muslim ban. Trump went off the handle, saying he was "going to get killed" politically and accused Turnbull and Australia of trying to send the US "the next Boston bombers", adding "this was the worst deal ever". Trump then told Turnbull that he had had four calls with world leaders that day and that "This was the worst call by far". With that, he terminated the call that was scheduled for an hour after just 25 minutes. Later, the US embassy in Australia confirmed that the US would honor the deal but that was followed by another Trump tweet saying he  "will study this dumb deal!". Nothing like giving conflicting signals.

Now, as per Josh Marshall, an alternate explanation for Trump's erratic behavior with Turnbull is that Turnbull has a very slim majority and relies on the support of some of the more extreme members of his Liberal party which is very much in line with the Trump/Bannon anti-immigrant point of view. It was no coincidence that Bannon was one of the few people in the room when Trump had that call. But even if this was an attempt to bolster the anti-immigrant faction in the Liberal party and subvert Turnbull, it is hard to see how Australians would react positively to that kind of interference in their domestic politics.

Around the world, leaders are recognizing that Trump is weak, ineffective, erratic, and unfocused. Turkey and Greece have upped the ante in a dispute over some disputed, uninhabited islands, as Turkey wants to have airmen involved in the coup against Erdogan who are currently in Greece extradited back to Turkey. This will spill over into the talks to reunify Cyprus. The botched raid in Yemen that ended with one US serviceman killed, others wounded, and multiple civilian casualties was approve by Trump "without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations", according to Reuters. Trump's push to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and the Netanyahu government's decision to approve thousands more housing units and even create new settlements in the West Bank will only end in more violence. Putin is pushing farther into Ukraine. China is expanding in the South China Sea while Trump berates our most important ally in that region and leaves them hanging by pulling out of TPP. And, of course, the Muslim ban is the best recruiting tool ISIS and al-Qaeda could have asked for. These are not just the everyday incidents that happen around the world. Any one of them could escalate into a major incident at any time. It seems that Trump and his advisers see his erratic behavior as a deterrent that will keep the lid on things. The rest of the world sees it as unfocused weakness.

At some point Trump will need international allies. But if this is the way he treats them, he may find that they will not be there when he needs them. In fact, Trump seems to be pissing off virtually every world leader he has interacted with, even Putin, with the possible exception of Theresa May. And he's been in office less than two weeks.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Feinstein Plays Into GOP Narrative On Merrick Garland

I was watching Dianne Feinstein getting interviewed on MSNBC this afternoon and I can't tell you how disappointing her answer to the question about confirming Gorsuch was. It wasn't so much that she seemed to waffle about filibustering him as much as she totally gave in to the frame that the GOP used to block Merrick Garland. She says (about 4:13 into interview) "It also sets a precedence of removing from the President of the United States his ability to appoint or nominate a Supreme Court justice in his final year".  She continued later saying, "I think there has to be an understanding that a real mistake was made in the way Merrick Garland was handled. We've got to recover from it. We've got to go on. I think we should go on."

NO! NO! NO! NO! The fact that the particular precedent for the President's last year has been set may be true but, remember, Republicans immediately said they would refuse to give Merrick Garland a hearing and only later came up with the idea that "the voters should have a say". In addition, a number of GOP Senators, including the supposed "moderate" John McCain, floated the idea of blocking any appointment that Hillary Clinton would make throughout her entire term, if she won the election. It was not just a "mistake" that was made. It was an unprecedented power grab that will change the course of this country for the next generation or two. It was an attack on the Constitution's requirement for the Senate to provide "advice and consent" by never even giving Garland a hearing or a vote. It was so much more than a "mistake" that we can "recover from".

The blocking of Merrick Garland is NOT about just setting a new precedent. It was about denying the rights and will of the voters who put that President in office with the clear understanding of his powers for the full four year term. It was about the majority changing the rules in order to maintain power. It is exactly the same as changing the rules for a Senate committee quorum in order to ram through Mnuchin and Price. It is the majority running roughshod over the minority. More importantly, it is about the destruction of the norms of governance and the checks and balances that ensure our democracy, a democracy that the Trump and GOP are quickly destroying.

Pharma And Another Big Bank Are Today's Corporate Criminals

As we head into the abyss, I want to make sure we still don't lose sight of the corporate criminals who are still running rampant throughout our economy. Today's price fixers are, shockingly enough, in the pharmaceutical sector again. Sanofi, Novo Nordisk, and Eli Lilly were accused in a class action suit in Massachusetts of conspiring to price fix the cost of insulin. Since insulin is pretty much a life-saving drug that patients absolutely must have, it has little price resistance so the drug makers could just keep on jacking up the price, knowing that patients would pay. From 2002 to 2013, the price of insulin nearly tripled and all three drug makers essentially moved their prices in lockstep. Having been caught engaging in illegal activity, the companies are trying to buy their way out of paying for their crimes. Lilly is offering discounts of up to 40% while Novo Nordisk promises to limit the price increases to 10% per year. Is this the only industry where a well-known and generic product actually increases in price over time? I thought the genius of capitalism meant that competition would drive prices down. Unfortunately, capitalism requires competition to work effectively. Oligopolies, which this market apparently is, just create kleptocracy. Of course, the scam that the drug makers were running also required the collusion of the pharmacy industry. As we have seen with the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, these two groups work hand in hand to continually rip off the American consumer and actually harm the health of Americans.

Atrios gives a heads up about another pharma firm that provides the injector device for naloxone, the drug that can keep opioid overdose victims from dying. As the opioid epidemic sweeps the country, often with the complicity of Big Pharma and local pharmacies, the price of naloxone has doubled in the last few years but still is priced around $150 for a 10-mililiter vial. The price of the injector, known as Evzio, has gone from $690 in 2014 to $4,500 today for a twin-pack. Evzio accounted for almost half of the naloxone prescribed in the last two years for the over 40 age group that comprises the bulk of naloxone users. As with Epi-Pen, the company that produces these injectors claims that they provide discounts for bulk buyers and even provide free injectors to government agencies. But that probably does not help individuals and smaller groups that need the product.

But, not to worry, Donald Trump will make sure the government will negotiate with these big pharmaceutical....oh, sorry. Trump will offer these big pharmaceutical companies less regulation and bigger tax cuts. That will surely bring prices down.

I have written about Deutsche Bank (DB) money laundering scandal before. The bank was knowingly laundering about $10 billion for Russians through its Moscow, London, and New York branches using a fairly simple scheme called mirror trades. The mirror trades always produced losses for the customer because DB was collecting commissions on both of the simultaneous transactions. That alone should have been a red flag for DB officials. The Russians, despite those small continual losses were able to convert their rubles into more other more stable currencies and move it offshore at the same time. According to a study in London, these DB transactions laundering money for Russians accounted for nearly 20% of the "unreported" capital movements into the UK, or about $1.5 billion per month. Today it was time for DB to buy its way out of jail. DB was forced to pay a $425 million fine to the NY State Department of Financial Services (DFS) for this illegal activity as well as a $204 million fine to the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK.  As the Times article notes, "The Russian scheme... highlights what has been a pervasive culture at Deutsche of skirting regulations to pad profits and personal bonuses". Please read the whole DFS consent order. You will be shocked at the level of criminality in all the areas of the bank associated with these trades. It also provides a rundown of DB's long history of regulatory violations. It must also be pointed out that this scheme ran for 2011 to 2015. This was not part of the "go-go" years before the financial crisis. This was AFTER the big global banks nearly destroyed the world's financial system. But don't worry, Trump is going to roll back regulations and those harmful Dodd-Frank rules so that DB and others can continue their massive fraud unabated.

Again and again I ask, how and why are any of these companies still in business?

Housekeeping Note

The destruction of our democracy is moving at a breakneck pace these days, so fast it is impossible to highlight even a quarter of what I would like to write about on this blog. Atrios describes the problem, "Slightly meta, but one increasingly difficult thing about blogging is that it's impossible to stay 5 minutes ahead of the news cycle anymore. I'm usually 15 minutes behind. Once upon a time I could highlight things that you, dear readers, were probably unaware of. Now that's almost impossible. You know the what and what it means before I do, usually."

In order to keep up with the Trump/Bannon atrocities, please visit me on twitter and Facebook. I will still be posting longer pieces here as much as possible.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Democrats Must Filibuster Gorusch And Force GOP To Nuke The Filibuster

I don't really want to spend a lot of time on Trump's Supreme Court nominee. Gorsuch will be horrible for women and workers and will just be another rubber stamp. I'm not interested in his judicial philosophy or specific rulings because we all know he's just another judicial hack, just based on his support for the Hobby Lobby decision.

But I do want the Democrats to filibuster Gorsuch and, if the GOP nukes the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, that will be just another democratic norm they will have destroyed. Nothing new there as they've been doing that for nearly the last three decades. Someday, Democrats will have the Presidency and control of the Senate. When that happens, we should all remember Merrick Garland and stack the Court so that there will be at least one more Democratic appointee than Republican. That may require 11 justices. It may require 13 justices. But we should ram them through with the 50 vote threshold just like the Republicans will ram through Gorsuch after they nuke the filibuster. And then reverse every important Supreme Court decision made with Gorsuch on the bench.

Remember Merrick Garland. Never forget.

For now, I don't want anything to deflect attention away from the lawlessness of Trump and this administration. The Emoluments Clause violations, the potential violation of law in targeting terrorists' families, the firing of the Attorney General, the attacks on the press and on any dissent within federal agencies, the violation of separation of powers by secretly using Congressional staff, and cabinet nominees that brazenly lie to Congress, those are the issues to be focusing on now. Democrats should make it easy on themselves and say very little about Gorsuch and then vote, en bloc, against him. Meanwhile, stay focused on the constitutional crises Trump is creating.

Democrats Block Senate Quorum As Constitutional Crisis Expands

As we sprint headlong into Armageddon, I'd like to take a moment to toot my own horn because I fear that opportunity may not be available very much longer. Back on January 9th, I recommended that Democrats refuse to allow a quorum in Senate hearing in order to stop Trump's most ethically challenged nominees. And, lo and behold, Democrats have actually done just that in order to press Tom Price and Steve Mnuchin about why they lied and continue to lie to the Senate committees overseeing their nominations.

Sadly, this is just another example of how our democracy is collapsing under the constant attacks of Trump/Bannon and the sycophantic GOP Congress. Trump is engaging in a broad assault on our liberties and our Constitution. He is in violation of the Emoluments Clause. He is muzzling federal agencies. He is threatening a free press. He has fired the top law enforcement official in the land for disagreeing with him about the law. His agencies have engaged and are perhaps still engaged in violating a federal court order and infringing on the rights of those who live and work here legally. The GOP Congress does nothing about any of these violations and, worse, provides active and tacit support for these actions. They stand mute as Trump uses their employees to craft policy and holds those employees to non-disclosure agreements so that their employers, Senators and Representatives, will be kept in the dark, a clear violation of the separation of powers. His nominees have enormous ethical baggage and freely lie to Congress in the knowledge that the GOP majority will rubber stamp their approval.

In any other circumstance, even as a Democrat, I would vehemently oppose the actions that Democratic Senators took today. The obvious solution would have been to allow the Democrats to further question the nominees to their hearts content and then go ahead with a vote that everyone knows would confirm these nominees. But, in the bizarre world that the GOP currently inhabits, that would be an unforgiveable show of weakness. It will be interesting to what kind of volatile response Trump/Bannon will have to this. It is not out of the realm of possibility that we will be seeing federal marshals arresting recalcitrant Democrats and bringing them to the Senate to create a quorum.

Republicans have destroyed so many of the norms of governance that it has come to this. It is time for Republicans to choose between power and democracy and they have shown no indication that they care for our democracy one whit. Rather, they are only focused on maintaining and wielding power to enact policies that most of America opposes. This will only end in a military coup or a civil war. I'm sorry but it is hard to see any other way forward.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Acting Head Of DOJ, Obama Holdover, Will Not Defend Immigration Ban In Court

Sally Yates, acting head of the DOJ and a holdover from the Obama administration is making her stand. She has ordered the DOJ not to defend the Trump/Bannon immigration ban in court. Of course, as soon as Sessions is confirmed that order will be reversed and Sally Yates will be told to leave the building. But at least Yates is standing up for her principals and daring Trump/Bannon to fire her. If Democrats can drag out Sessions' vote long enough, Trump/Bannon may just go ahead and do that because, for them, any opposition must be crushed. And Yates would just become the latest victim of the Trump/Bannon autocracy.

Update: Not surprisingly, Trump took the bait and fired Yates immediately. Here is the White House statement:

"The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. This order was approved as to form and legality by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel.

Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.

It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.

Tonight, President Trump relieved Ms. Yates of her duties and subsequently named Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as Acting Attorney General until Senator Jeff Sessions is finally confirmed by the Senate, where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons.

'I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed. I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected,' said Dana Boente, Acting Attorney General."

Just another step on the road to autocracy...Will the GOP ever stand up to Trump/Bannon?

Divining Insurance Industry Silence On Obamacare Repeal

Kevin Drum asks an interesting question about the curious silence of the insurance companies regarding the chaos surrounding GOP plans to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, or any of its variants, and the disastrous effect on the individual market and the insurance companies' bottom line. Asks Drum, "This makes their silence hard to understand. Are they biding their time? Have they given up? Are they lobbying hard, but doing it very quietly? Aside from the people [who] would be left without medical care under a Republican repeal, insurers stand to lose the most. Why aren't they being more public about this?"

One potential answer is that every executive these days is petrified of doing anything to offend Trump for fear he will target them with a twitter bomb that will tank their stock price. More likely, however, is that a large number of the corporate CEOs in this country are ideologues just as extreme as the Republican party. One of the biggest reasons why there are fewer healthy people in the Obamacare exchanges than anticipated is not because those young millennials did not sign up. It is because far fewer companies actually dropped their employee sponsored plans and moved their employees to Obamacare, even though that might have been cheaper for the company. I'm also guessing that whatever they lose with the collapse of the individual market will be at least partially made up for by being able to sell those "junk" insurance plans again and the enormous tax cuts that Trump and the GOP will give them. I'm also pretty sure that none of those CEOs really view health care as a right and care very little about the number of uninsured in this country. I'd like to think they are negotiating behind the scenes and lobbying hard just like I'd like to think Trump will respect the rule of law. But that's just wishful thinking.

Again, Our Institutions Will Not Save Us

I know I'm coming across as an alarmist but I truly do believe that there is still far too many in the media, in Congress, in business, and among our fellow citizens who have this unshakeable belief that our institutions will save us from the worst authoritarian tendencies of Trump/Bannon. I'll just give three examples but there are many more out there that I could also include. I am not trying to be critical of those I highlight here, only use them as examples as to how widespread this feeling is.

Even as Trump was being inaugurated, Josh Marshall wrote a piece in which he said this, "But as I wrote a few days ago in a somewhat different context, we should have more faith in our values, our history and our country. America, in all its greatness, its variousness, its customs and history is far, far greater than any President. And that is not just some generic or abstract statement." To give Marshall credit, he was far more focused on the power of the American citizens to stop Trump than just relying on our institutions, saying, "A President has little power without popular support. I don't believe that a President can change the country, on his own, the way many fear that he will."

In today's NY Times, David Sanger writes, "Perception is different from reality. It is possible that when viewed from a distance of a few years, Mr. Trump’s pronouncements about 'extreme vetting' and his rush to push some of America’s most experienced career diplomats out of their jobs will look like a first-week blitz intended to send a message to the world that he meant what he said when he talked about 'America First.'" That is, I believe, wishful thinking. It is totally contradicted by everything Trump has done in his career and campaign. And it seems to blissfully ignore the brazen flouting of the law that Trump has already engaged in, from the refusal to divest his business to the continued refusal to comply with federal court orders regarding the immigration ban to putting Bannon on the NSC's Principals Committee without Senate approval.

Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democrat who was one of three Congressman trying to see detainees at Dulles Airport on Sunday morning and was blocked by the CPB, said, "This remains a nation of laws, not of men." I have heard similar themes from experts and pundits in the last day or so. But at the very moment Connolly was saying those very words, the CPB was in direct violation of a federal court order. And, even as of this morning, it is still unclear whether the CPB is actually complying.

In Masha Gessen's essential primer for dealing with an autocracy, the third rule is "institutions will not save you". Gessen specifically warns Americans that our institutions are not nearly as strong as we think and are largely "enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution". We are only ten days into the Trump presidency and already Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution and his administration, at least for a period of time and may still be, actively ignoring a federal court order. If we are relying on Republicans in Congress to stand up to Trump's illegal actions, I think the deafening silence we have heard on his conflicts of interest and on the illegal aspects of the immigration ban should give a clear idea about that futility of that hope. If we are relying on the Supreme Court, the Bush v. Gore, Hobby Lobby, and Obamacare decisions should tell you all you need to know. Perhaps the only hope on the Court, especially after whatever disaster Trump manages to put on the bench, will be that John Roberts has some concern about his legacy. That is not much to pin your hopes on.

Tom Pepinsky, an Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University, has a wonderful article on Americans' ignorance about what living under an authoritarian government looks like. "The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus...The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people 'make it' through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections...Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous." This is exactly why it is so important that we do not normalize ourselves to Trump's illegal behavior, why we must resist relentlessly. The path of least resistance is to just "go along, get along" and that will be the path to the destruction of our values and our democracy.

Pepinsky ends his piece by noting "You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change". Considering that the popular vote winner has "lost" two elections in the last 16 years, the extreme Republican gerrymandering, and the fact that the Senate is controlled by Republicans even though more Americans voted for Democratic Senators are striking indicators that our democracy is slipping away. If we allow Trump/Bannon and the GOP to normalize the illegal actions of the executive branch, it will surely be lost for good.

Quick Recap Of Trump's Short Press Appearance

Trump's quick news conference is all about deflection. After a gratuitous shot at Chuck Schumer's "fake tears", he just gives a list of all his incredible achievements re Ford, GM, Lockheed Martin, and US steel to be used in the oil pipelines. Of course, the millions in savings and thousands of jobs he claims to have "saved" are a miniscule portion of our massive economy.

He also plugs his announcement of his coming announcement of his SCOTUS pick and his plans to eliminate regulation to help business. He takes credit for the rise on the stock market. Announces a new executive order to be signed this afternoon that will begin cutting regulation. And then he leaves without taking any questions.

His focus on economic issues and constant need to list his "accomplishments" in that area are just another attempt to deflect attention from the constitutional crisis he created this weekend.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Four Important Takeaways From This Weekend

I think there are a number of important takeaways from this weekend. First, although it may seem like this Muslim ban was hastily rolled out, there was clearly a fair degree of planning that went into the way it was actually implemented. Steve Clemons reported on MSNBC tonight that OMB and other agency heads that would potentially be effected were informed about the immigration ban, if not in detail but in general, and were instructed not to discuss it within their agencies. So, it is clear that the lack of legal and bureaucratic preparation for this ban was part of the White House plan. And I think we can safely say, based on the fact that Bannon and Miller overrode DHS on green card holders, that when we say White House in regard to this issue, we really mean Bannon/Miller. In addition, based on the uniform response of the CPB and their lack of cooperation with lawyers as well as their defiance of court orders, I think we can reasonable speculate that Bannon/Miller had coordinated this ban far more intimately with the CPB union, the only federal employee union to endorse Trump, I believe, than with the federal bureaucracy. It would be interesting to see the results of an FOIA request on that, if you could get a response.

Secondly, I also believe that this will be the MO of the Trump administration going forward, ignoring the layers of federal bureaucracy and "going it alone". Trump/Bannon does not believe in the federal bureaucracy and somehow thinks that everything can be managed from the White House. We see that in the purge of top State Department officials and ambassadors, leaving all the details of our foreign policy in the hands of the White House as the Secretary of State still has not been confirmed. The unwillingness to involve the federal bureaucracy in any of the details of this Muslim ban again demonstrates that faulty thinking. Based on the results of this weekend, that should scare us all. That lack of faith or interest in the bureaucracy is also indicated by dropping the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the DNI from the NSC's inner circle while adding Bannon, apparently without the consent of the Senate that is required. That alone is frightening, especially to anyone who truly cares about our national security.

Thirdly, Rachel Maddow pointed out earlier this evening that this Muslim ban was just the initial salvo and the administration would see how everyone would react and what they would able to get away with now and in the future. That accounts for the ban including green card holders. It was designed to push things to the max and see how the people and Congress would react. Seeing how much resistance they were getting, Bannon/Miller pulled back on that issue late today. But the rest of the order still stands and will still need to be fought. And this will just be the first battle. If they can get away with the ban on these seven countries, they will soon issue a new order expanding the number of countries to be included.

Which brings us to the next point which is that Trump will be relentless in his abuses of the system, both within the law and outside the law. To quote the Huffington Post headline right now, it will take "relentless resistance" to stop Trump and/or slow him down. That will mean spontaneous acts of resistance like this weekend will have to be maintained with high participation over an extended period of time. As we have seen clearly, Republicans in Congress are clearly on board with whatever Trump does and, with the exception perhaps of a handful, they can not be relied upon to check trump in any way, at least not until they get their precious tax cuts in place and roll back the New Deal. Trump and Bannon are counting on us to slowly lose the interest and passion to fight them. They are looking at a four to eight year horizon. We need to be prepared to wage a difficult and protracted fight. They are counting on a significant portion of today's resistance to begin to feel that it is futile and unproductive. So we need to understand that this is a battle against an authoritarian ruler and a fight for the soul and the future of this country. For all of us, it is a battle we can not afford to lose.

Australian Open Recap - Serena And Federer Cement Their Place As Tennis Immortals

The 2017 Australian Open ended with a fabulous five set classic between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, with Federer prevailing 6-3 in the fifth set.  Federer got off to a quick start and took the first set, which is always critical for him, especially against Rafa. They traded the next three sets with each raising their level at the same time the other's dropped off. Federer played a sloppy opening game in the fifth and was broken. Rafa struggled in his next two service games, facing break points in each, but held on while Federer held serve handily. Down 3-2 with Rafa serving, Federer finally broke back, capitalizing on his sixth break point of the set as Rafa's forehand started to beak down just a bit. Fed held serve easily again to go ahead 4-3 and Rafa again fell behind on his serve 15-40. But, ever the fighter, Rafa fought back to deuce. Fed got a break point after an incredible point filled with both men hitting with unbelievable power and precision but he couldn't convert. But he got another break chance and didn't let this one get away. Fed, who had no trouble on serve since the first game of the set, fell behind 15-40 as Nadal was not going to go quietly into the night. But, like Rafa in the prior game, he was able to come back  and level the game at deuce with a big serve and a big forehand. I believe Rafa then got a break point but Fed served his way out of it. Fed then won the next two points to close out the match, winning match point on a ball that caught the sideline as Nadal's challenge failed, and won the 18th and most improbable major of his career.

Federer was able to win this match because his cross-court backhand could penetrate Nadal and he won some big points with big first serves. Both those shots were aided by the faster hard court surface here at the Aussie Open. In addition, Fed did not seem to tire in the fifth set as has happened in the past and went for his shots as though he had nothing to lose. The six month layoff porbably helped with both those aspects. Nadal was clearly devastated by the loss as this was the second Australian Open that he had been up a break in the fifth set and was unable to close it out. But he has everything to be proud of in this match and the tournament showed that he will again, barring another injury, be a contender this year.

In the women's final, Serena was unstoppable and took care of Venus 6-4, 6-4. With her 23rd major title Serena surpasses Steffi Graf and is only chasing Margaret Court for the most majors ever.  Both Federer and Serena cemented their legacies as the greatest of all time with these wins.

In men's doubles, the Bryan brothers were trying to win their 17th Grand Slam title but came up short, losing 7-5, 7-5 to the team of Henri Kontinen of Finland and John Peers of Australia. The team of Kontinen/Peers seem to have the Bryan's number, having won all three matches they have played against them.

In the junior girl's final, 14 year old Marta Kostyuk from the Ukraine won a 3 set thriller over Rebeka Masarova from Switzerland. Kostyuk won a tight first set but seemed to lose her way in the second, losing that set 6-1. But she held her poise in the third and won the big points to take the set 6-4 and win the title. It's always hard to equate junior success to the pros (just ask some American men) but this young girl is a true phenom. She has a lot going for besides her talented game. Her mother is her coach and that combo has been shown to be a bit more fruitful than having a father as a coach. In addition, she is managed by Federer's current coach, Ivan Ljubicic, who was a longtime tour pro and will know how to prepare her and her team for the rigors of the tour. She is certainly a name to watch for in the future.

The First Day Under Trump/Bannon Authoritarian Rule

If January 27, 2017 was a day that will live in shame for America, January 28, 2017 may be remembered as the first day of fascism under the Trump/Bannon regime. That may sound a little extreme to some, but it does describe the situation we found ourselves in as a country yesterday evening and even into today. The dubious legal ground that the Trump regime was standing on when it refused admission to permanent legal residents of this country was just one step. But the refusal for the Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agents to abide by federal court rulings after multiple federal judges orders requiring people with a legal right to live in the United States to be allowed into the country was the next step in our budding Constitutional crisis. CPB officials refused to allow these individuals the right to see their lawyers in defiance of those court's orders and, as of this morning, had still not fully abided by the courts' ruling.

Just before midnight, Senator Booker from New Jersey arrived at Washington's Dulles Airport and asked to speak to CPB officials. Incredibly, CPB officials refused to meet with Booker and required him to use an intermediary in order to answer written questions.  My guess is these orders clearly came from Bannon and were designed to defy the power of the legislature to actually interact with federal agencies.

Meanwhile, in New York, the police were actively blocking US citizens from boarding a public train so that they could join a protest at Kennedy Airport. This was clearly an abridgement of the free right of assembly. It took the intervention of New York Governor Cuomo to allow those citizens to exercise that right.

Then, this morning, Trump sent out another classic tweet that essentially declared that the NY Times should be shut down if they don't provide the coverage he likes.

Federal agencies that enforce legally unvetted orders from the President, defy court orders, and refuse to meet with a sitting US Senator; police that prevent the right of free assembly; and a President in effect saying a media organization should be shut down. In any other country, we would be saying that there were clear signs of budding authoritarianism. Just because it is happening here, doesn't mean we should think any differently.

Natural Weekends - Clouds Of Unrest

It has become increasingly more difficult to do the normal things you would do because Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and their GOP sycophants are close to turning the United States into an authoritarian country. But I need some respite for the perpetual abuse the serial sexual abuser in charge is heaping on us on a daily basis. So here is today's edition of Natural Weekends - I hope it provides some kind of brief escape for you.