Saturday, February 18, 2017

Trump Must Be Impeached Simply To Save The Western World

The reports and rumors swirling around Trump's foreign and national security policies today are truly frightening. And the stories are not just related to Trump's ties with Putin and the Russians but a total unraveling of what we all have known as the Western Alliance.

First, the Deputy National Security Adviser under President Obama, Colin Kahl put out a frightening tweet storm concerning Trump's foreign policy and the National Security Council (NSC). Already, Michael Flynn has been forced to resign as Trump's National Security Adviser (NSA) over his connections and contacts with Russia. Robert Harward and David Petraeus have both turned down the job to replace him, primarily because they were denied the authority to build their own teams in the NSC. One principal objection apparently for both was the insistence from the White House that K.T. McFarland would remain as deputy NSA. More important was the fact that Bannon would still not only remain on the NSC but also clearly be running parallel foreign policy analysis out of the White House.

Kahl reports that dysfunction of the NSC is perfectly fine for the White House, especially Steve Bannon who it seems is the one actually running foreign policy. According to Kahl, Bannon's Strategic Initiatives Group is freezing out the State Department, Department of Defense, and the NSC and his group is the one that is really determining foreign policy initiatives, primarily focusing on some sort of deal with Russia. Kahl continues, "Idea of bargain would be to give Kremlin major concessions on NATO, Ukraine, etc. for cooperation on ISIS & maybe Iran & China too." Kahl goes on to point out that Russia has very little ability to constrain China and is highly unlikely to give up their long relationship with Iran. Kahl suggests two other rationales for a "grand bargain" with Russia, both highly disturbing. First is an "alignment of interests" that would weaken NATO and increase the chances for the breakup of the EU, goals that both Trump and Bannon have espoused. The other option is a "quid pro quo" for Russian assistance in getting Trump elected.

The reason the GOP Russia hawks allowed Mattis and Tillerson to be confirmed is that they were seen as relatively sane guys who would be an ameliorating influence on Trump and Bannon. Instead, they are both being entirely frozen out of any decision-making process. Mattis was not informed about the Muslim ban until it was announced. The State Department was frozen out of the meeting with Netanyahu, as the representative that Tillerson had sent from State because he himself was on his way to Germany was denied access to the meeting he had been scheduled to attend, and Tillerson only heard about Trump's abandonment of the two-state solution from reports about Trump's press conference. According to Politico, "At the White House, there was little thought about notifying the nation's top diplomat because, as one senior staffer put it, 'everyone knows Jared [Kushner] is running point on the Israel stuff'". Essentially Mattis and Tillerson have spent virtually their entire time on the job travelling around the world tryin to reassure our nervous allies.

But it's becoming clear that our allies understand where the power lies in the Trump administration, and it's not with the US team that was sent to Munich to reassure the Europeans. They understand the power lies with Trump, Bannon, and Kushner. Wolfgang Ischer, a long-time German supporter of the US and NATO, said today that if Trump continues to "advocate EU member countries to follow the Brexit would amount to a kind of non-military declaration of war. It would mean conflict between Europe and the US". And this is after Pence, Mattis, Tillerson, and McCain's messages of reassurance. At that same conference in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a "just world order – if you want you can call it a post-West world order”. This statement by Lavrov comes after a closed door meeting with Tillerson where neither side issued a statement afterward. I have a feeling that the Europeans believe that Lavrov's vision is far closer to Trump's and Bannon's than anything they heard from Pence, Mattis, Tillerson, or McCain.

And it's not just Europe that is worried. I turned on MSNBC about an hour ago and saw a segment on the strain in Australian-US relations that has grown with the failure of TPP and ascendancy of Trump, especially his bizarre phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The premise of the story was that these actions were pushing Australia into warmer relations with China. In addition, it is no coincidence that the EU finalized its trade deal with Canada shortly after Trump's inauguration.

Meanwhile, the disarray in the bureaucracy continues and, in many ways, it is part of a strategy of the Trump administration. There are hundreds of sub-cabinet positions that require Senate confirmation that Trump has not even provided a name for. In addition, despite his promises to give Tillerson and Mattis control over who they hire, it appears that is not the case. Appointments have either been made directly from the White House or the White House has vetoed appointments Tillerson and Mattis have made. After two withdrawals for consideration of NSA, there are now reports that Trump is allowing current deputy NSA KT McFarland to suggest her choice. She is apparently recommending John Bolton, someone who is perhaps even crazier that Flynn was. In addition, an NSC aide has been fired after he attending a conference where he blasted the dysfunction in the NSC and the Trump White House, complaining the NSC has no access to the President. The nominee for the Secretary of the Army, Vincent Viola, previously withdrew his nomination and today there are reports that the Secretary of the Navy, Philip Bilden, is now withdrawing his nomination. Barry McCaffrey was on MSNBC saying that he would not be surprised to see Dan Coats withdraw his name for consideration as Director of National Intelligence. Even today, there is still no firm date for starting hearings for Coats which certainly prompts speculation.

We are under one month in to this new administration and it already looks like the rats are leaving the sinking ship. The problem for the country is that this bureaucratic dysfunction allows the White House and especially Bannon to consolidate even more power over intelligence and foreign policy. And Bannon is someone who has repeatedly said that we are destined for war with China and Iran and we might as well start those wars now while we still have an enormous military advantage. Our allies are losing faith in our government and already looking for other alternatives other than the US for leadership and support. The feeling in many corners of the world is that order that has existed for the past 70 years is increasingly fragile and liable to be completely broken by Trump. That would spell disaster for many of our allies, especially those in Eastern Europe and even more especially for those in the Baltic states. And it will create a wasteful and dangerous arms race in Europe and elsewhere.

Trump and his administration present the most profound danger to the Western Alliance in decades. If they follow through on some of their rumored policies, it will create global chaos and thousands, if not millions, of lives will probably be lost around the globe. Do you honestly think that allowing the Baltics to fall back under Russian influence will not create a revolt that will be quelled militarily. Do you honestly think that putting troops in Syria will not end in a quagmire or inspire even more terrorist attacks? Do you honestly think the breakup of the EU will not end up in violence and, perhaps in some distant future, war on the European continent. Perhaps I am overstating things, but they are all within the realm of possibility. We are in dangerous times.

I find it hard to believe I am saying this, but I am increasingly feeling that Trump must be impeached for the sake of the world. Yes, Pence will be a disaster. The GOP in Congress will get their massive tax cuts. We will lose our healthcare. Voting rights will be further restricted. Abortion will also be severely limited or, more likely, outlawed entirely. The environment will be pillaged. But these are simply problems for America. Democrats and the people can at least fight and delay these moves and hope to regain power and rebuild in the future. Trump, on the other, is a threat not only to our country but also to the rest of the world. Because of the power of the presidency and the lack of Congressional and judicial checks on that power when it comes to foreign policy, it will be impossible to stop Trump from destroying the Western Alliance and reaching a "grand bargain" with Russia and assist in subverting the EU. In fact, we are unlikely to know it will happen until it occurs. For the sake of the safety and security of the rest of the world, America must suffer and Trump and Bannon must go.

Natural Weekend - Migratory Birds In Texas

It's the middle of February. There are a few more ducks and geese and birds showing up but still not much happening on the creek. So let's take a visit to the Gulf Coast, where, besides those mythical hordes of murderers, thieves, and terrorists that Trump constantly lies about, millions of birds also invade our country from the south on their migratory journeys. Our first stop is in Corpus Christi, Texas and the Suter Wildlife Refuge.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Trump Is Already Cooking The Books

We all knew it would happen, we just didn't think it would happen from day one. Trump is now ordering the government economists to create fake economic reports that will make Trump look good and allow for greater tax cuts. I'm sure this is just the kind of "cooking the books' that is normal in the Trump Organization so it should work just fine in government.

Vox reports that Trump transition officials essentially gave the parameters of a growth rate of between 3 and 3.5 percent along with the assumption that interest rates would stay low to the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers and told them to back-fill the details accordingly. This is not just tweaking some assumptions to make the economic forecast rosier. It is determining exactly what the economic forecast should be and then adjusting the underlying details accordingly.

The effect of this make-believe "forecast" is to make the GDP look about 17% higher than traditional estimates 10 years from now. Both the Fed and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) believe growth will remain around 2% per year and interest rates will rise. The fake forecast is a nice feature for Trump because it allows for greater tax cuts and increased spending on the military without increasing the federal deficit as a share of GDP. It's funny how that worked out.

The Vox article seems to think that this will be a problem for the GOP in Congress as they are forced to rely on the CBO estimates. But I think that vastly underestimates the cowardice and cravenness of today's GOP, especially when tax cuts hang in the balance.

GOP Fiddles, ACA Burns, And Democrats Need To Hold GOP Responsible

The other day the Freedom Caucus laid down its marker on Obamacare and it pretty much closes off any avenue for Republicans to "repair" Obamacare and complicates any effort to "repeal and replace". Even Trump has said that whatever happens with Obamacare may not be finished until 2018 but even that may not satisfy those in the Freedom Caucus.

On Monday night, that group of around 50 Freedom Caucus members of the House vote to only accept a repeal bill that was at least as restrictive of the repeal bill they passed in 2015. That bill eliminated Medicaid expansion as well as the individual and employer mandates and the subsidies and taxes that helped pay for Obamacare. Without those items, there really is nothing left of the Affordable Care Act.

This position just exacerbates the war within the GOP over Obamacare. The Medicaid expansion is largely popular even in the red states that have adopted it. Charlie Dent, a Republican who passes as a "moderate" these days, says, "A lot of Republicans who represent expansion states are going to handle this Medicaid issue very delicately, and they’re not going to be taking an ideological doctrinaire position", a pretty direct swipe at the Freedom Caucus repeal. And there is no Republican plan that will ever cover the same number of people that Obamacare did for a similar amount of money. Some in the GOP apparently still believe that they can drag a few Democrats along in a piecemeal replacement that cover far fewer people that Obamacare and will cost individuals far more. With the passion in the Democratic base these days, that is never going to happen.

On the other hand, the Trump administration came out with their ideas to temporarily "repair" the ACA yesterday. The plan includes shortening the enrollment period and putting more restrictions on any special enrollments The special enrollments allow people who lose their employer-based insurance, get married, or have a baby to enroll outside the regular window. Insurers claim they spend significantly more on these people than regular enrollees. Of course, it is easy to see that having a baby will significantly increase an enrollees cost to the insurers, so it is not all about "cheating" the system as some insurers imply.  In addition, a couple of technical changes that would reduce subsidies by around $300 per family per year and that changed the mandated level of service in the Silver plans that will force many enrollees to either pay higher premiums or accept a lower level of service. It also appears that the IRS is going to stop enforcing the individual mandate. The Trump administration hopes that these moves will keep the ACA on life support while the GOP figures out what to do.

And now Paul Ryan has come out with his own sketch of a plan to repeal and replace the ACA, calling it a BetterWay. As usual with every Ryan plan, it provides no details on how this will be paid for and how many people it will cover. The basics are that it will repeal the ACA and replace it with the usual GOP tropes. There will be a tax credit for people to buy insurance, incentives to set up Medical savings accounts, the ability to purchase health insurance across state lines, and the creation of high risk pools. The amount of the tax credit was not detailed but it would surely be much less than any subsidies are now. It must be that way if the GOP is to use the money saved by repealing Obamacare for their tax cuts. In addition, the tax credit will be scaled based on age rather than income, basically shifting costs from younger to older people. Lastly, it provides no details on whether or how it would mandate that pre-existing conditions be covered without the cost of insurance skyrocketing.

The Ryan plan also envisions eliminating Medicaid as we know it. Instead, Medicaid would be turned into either a block grant or a fixed amount per beneficiary in each state. That payments would be indexed to some inflation indicator but the plan did not detail which one, implying that the states would end up picking up a greater and greater share of the costs or cutting benefits over time. As it is, some of the largest Medicaid beneficiaries would see the federal share of Medicaid go from 90% to 50%. The fact that those are mainly blue states is probably a feature rather than a bug. In addition, it appears that the plan also puts a cap on the per-capita Medicaid funding, meaning that it may not cover the full cost of the service provided. As Charlie Dent made clear above, even Republicans governors are not happy with this plan and even some GOP Senators seem skeptical.

Ryan's plan will make any real coverage unaffordable, providing only catastrophic plans with deductibles in the $10,000-$12,000 range. It will also end up covering far fewer people than Obamacare did. But that's not really the point. This plan is purely designed for House members to go back to their districts and say they have a plan to replace the ACA and assure their constituents they will still be able to get coverage.

Meanwhile, insurers continue to exit the market as they are unwilling to deal with the uncertainty that the GOP is creating for the exchanges next year. Ryan's plan only adds to that. The other day Humana announced that they are pulling out of the exchanges in 2018. Fortunately, the company is not a big player in the health insurance market, covering less than 200,000 people, but their withdrawal will leave certain areas in the South with just one or two providers.

As an aside, the day before this announcement from Humana, the company and Aetna announced that they are abandoning their merger, after deciding not to appeal a judge's ruling that the merger violated antitrust concerns. Aetna will now pay Humana $1 billion for the trouble. You may remember Aetna for its blatant attempt to blackmail the DOJ into letting this merger proceed by threatening to pull out of the Obamacare exchanges if the merger was blocked. The DOJ held firm and Aetna proceeded to publicly announce its withdrawal from certain states, in some of which it was quite profitable. The lesson for Democrats in this is to make sure there is a public option otherwise the government will always be subject to blackmail and extortion by the health insurers, as Aetna has proved.

The Republicans immediately jumped on this news of Humana's withdrawal to promote their meme of a failing ACA, just as they did when Aetna withdrew. At the same time, Aetna again declared it was losing money and may pull out of the exchanges entirely, as did another smaller insurer called Molina Healthcare who also stood to profit from the Aetna-Humana merger because they would have picked up some of Aetna's Medicare Advantage business. Both Aetna and Molina have reported profitability in the exchanges prior to this, so this is clearly a power play expressing their displeasure with the failure of their merger and probably a strong signal for Trump to somehow intervene. (Aetna's CEO certainly has been carrying the water for the GOP on the ACA. Perhaps his days are numbered after this failed merger and he is looking to jump ship to the Trump administration.) In any case, Trump tweeted, "Obamacare continues to fail. Humana to pull out in 2018. Will repeal, replace & save healthcare for ALL Americans" while Paul Ryan said, "More #Obamacare failures have surfaced over the past 24 hours—but Republicans are working on a #BetterWay".

Democrats need to fight these plans with one voice and with a strong counter-meme which should say the "GOP-created uncertainty is driving insurers out of ACA!". As I've written many times, the ACA will collapse on its own without a Republican vote if Democrats allow the uncertainty that "repeal and whatever" creates to force insurers out of the market in 2018. The insurance industry has been remarkably quiet since Trump's election. They would only be too happy to pull out of the ACA by blaming uncertainty, while the GOP points to their withdrawal as Obamacare collapsing on its own. In that case, they both win, Republicans see the ACA destroyed without a vote and the insurance companies know that anything that comes after will make them even more money, such as Ryan's BetterWay, despite covering far less people. Democrats seem to be unaware or unable to respond forcefully to this scenario. To do so, requires building the proper story line now. The insurers need to decide in May whether they will participate in the exchanges next year. If the insurers withdraw en masse then, it will be too late for the Democrats to win the battle of public opinion. They have to start now.

Right now, the chances of any action in Congress this year about Obamacare still looks relatively remote. There is still a huge amount of disagreement with the Republican party about how to move forward. But that does not mean the ACA could not die a death by stealth. Democrats need to make the people aware of this possibility and put the blame exactly where it belongs, on Republicans and the uncertainty they have created.

Trump/Bannon Seize More Power As They Gut Federal Agencies

The Trump cabinet is pretty much filled with people who were put there in order to destroy the agency they head. And that plan just feeds into the new authoritarian government Trump and Bannon are trying to set up. Without the federal bureaucracy, everything will be run out of the White House.

We can see this already occurring with the State Department. With multiple sub-cabinet positions still unfilled, apparently the Department has now begun laying off employees in what appears to be a purge. The State Department has not held the normal daily press briefing since Trump's inauguration. Additionally, Secretary of State Tillerson's attempt to hire a deputy has been blocked by the White House. No State Department official was allowed to join the meeting between Trump and Netanyahu. In essence, State is being entirely shut out of the foreign policy decision making process.

The ambassadors have all been fired and told to return home. Any new ambassadors will be probably be required to pay off the Trump family, either through campaign donations or direct graft, Jeffrey Loria being a prime example. Loria is apparently up for the nomination of Ambassador to France at the same time he is negotiating to sell his baseball team, the Miami Marlins, to a group led by Jared Kushner's brother. When that news became public, the Kushner group backed off the deal, saying they would postpone the transaction if Loria became ambassador. However, they specifically still said they were interested in purchasing the Marlins. Loria also donated $125,000 to the Trump campaign last fall. It is not unusual for large campaign donors to be "paid off" with ambassadorships. It is unusual for them to be doing business with the President's family while they are being considered.

The State Department is becoming an empty shell as the career bureaucrats are either forced or choose to leave. There is a titular Secretary of State but he does not seemed to be involved in policy making. There are no ambassadors in place to communicate with foreign countries. Everything is being run out of the White House.

Foreign affairs is clearly the area where a president has the most freedom and leeway and that makes the destruction of the State Department somewhat easier. But it is a template for many other agencies in the Trump administration, the EPA and Labor especially. By gutting these agencies, Trump effectively eliminates any enforcement mechanisms that will constrain his and the GOP's business allies. More importantly, these moves will consolidate even more power in the Trump/Bannon White House.

Trump Kicks Off 2020 Campaign To Save His Presidency Now

Donald Trump may have written his Presidential epitaph with his line yesterday that "the leaks are real...the news is fake". On the other hand, he has another 47 months to top that one. Other than lining his own and his family's pockets, Trump really seems to only have to items that he really believes in, a Muslim ban and a deportation crackdown. Everything else is transactional for him.

So, as his popularity tanks with everyone but his hard-core supporters, Trump will resort to what he does best and that is salesmanship, as opposed to governing. He will host a rally in Florida tomorrow that will be a campaign event paid for by his 2020 reelection fund. This is purely designed to make sure he keeps his base with him and, by doing so, keeps the already skittish GOP Congress at bay. He is already skating on thin ice and he must know that if the wall of GOP support begins to crack, Congress will turn on him in a heartbeat. After all, for most Republicans in Congress, Pence would be far easier to work with than Trump in their overwhelming desire to destroy the safety net and give huge tax cuts to the wealthy and their corporate overlords.

The recrafted Muslim ban and mass deportations will also play well to shoring up his base, at least for the time being. Once those are in place, however, it will be harder and harder for Trump to hide from his failures and his grift. Republicans in Congress must see they are now in a race to enact their agenda before Trump totally implodes and takes them down with him in 2018. And Trump will stay in campaign mode to keep their support. As everyone is asking today, how long can it last?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Amid Trump Chaos, Dems Need To Focus On Elections

It's time for Democrats to start preparing for 2018 when it will be imperative for them to either somehow win the Senate or, what incredibly seems more reachable today, win back the House. Today, Democrats are motivated like they've never been in decades but it remains to be seen whether that will result in running competitive, credible campaigns both at the state level as well as federal.

It would have been nice if we could have hit the ground running at some point after the election so that the DNC would be in place and able to capitalize on the enormous protest and activism triggered by the inauguration of Donald Trump. Instead, as usual, we have been subjected to a brutal internecine war that supposedly pits Keith Ellison against Tom Perez but are seen as proxies for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. That war has to end immediately if Democrats really want to maximize their chances in 2018. The agonizing decision will finally be made next week but already special elections that Democrats could win and need to win are under way.

I would prefer to see Perez become DNC chair if only because Democrats need every House member we have and Ellison has promised to leave his seat in order to devote his full attention to the DNC. Do we really need to put resources into defending that seat when Ellison leaves - you can be sure that the GOP will flood that race with money purely to make a point. What I hope doesn't happen is that, whoever is selected, it will just continue the Bernie-Hillary feud within the party.

Meanwhile, important races are already underway. In Minnesota, a special election there for a seat in the state House was won by the Republican yesterday. Trump received around 60% in this district but the DFL candidate put up a decent fight, winning 47% of the vote. The turnout was, as usual in special elections, low.  In Delaware, a special election for the state Senate holds control of that body in the balance. The seat is very competitive but is being vacated by a Democrat who became Lieutenant Governor.  The state Senate in Connecticut is similarly up for grabs where there are two special elections scheduled. One district is solidly Republican and one Democratic so, if the past holds, the Senate will not change hands. Later on this year, the state Senate in Washington will offer an opportunity for Democrats to flip that chamber as there will be three special elections and Democrats should be favored or competitive in two of them.

On the national level, there will be a special election in Georgia to fill Tom Price's House seat on April 18 with a runoff on June 20, if necessary. Hillary Clinton lost this district by just 1%, while Price romped by 23%. This seems incredible when his confirmation hearings showed that Price was clearly violating the STOCK Act and enriching himself while in office. Where was the Democratic opposition research on this? Hopefully, Democrats will unify around a former John Lewis staffer Jon Ossoff while Republicans remain fragmented. There are currently nine Republicans, five Democrats, and one independent currently qualified for the ballot with more expected. The Daily Kos community has already raised over $500,000 for Ossoff. It would be nice if the DNC could also focus its support. This is the most important election Democrats will face this year.  If Democrats could pick up a win in this election, it would truly be a warning shot to the GOP in Congress and their prospects in 2018. Another, longer shot, for a House pickup could be the election to replace Ryan Zinke for the at-large seat in Montana. Other elections for seats in California, Kansas, and South Carolina are not likely to change hands.

Later this fall, there are two important gubernatorial election, one in Virginia and one in New Jersey. In New Jersey, the departing Republican Chris Christie is spectacularly unpopular and there are three well known Democrats already in the running, two established legislators and a wealthy former ambassador to Germany. The Republicans are waiting to see if the Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno is going to run although three state legislators have already announced. This should be a great chance for Democrats to flip this state. In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe is term limited and the battle to replace will be fierce. Presumptive Democratic nominee Ralph Northam is being challenged by the progressive former congressman Tom Perriello. Let's pray that battle does not ending up splitting the party. On the GOP side, Ed Gillespie looks to be the front-runner among four announced candidates so far. Again, this would be an important hold for Democrats.

Howard Dean served as DNC chair for four years that ended in 2009. During that time, Dean developed and promoted the 50 state strategy. That strategy focused on building the party structure and recruitment at every level in all 50 states, even those that were hopelessly Republican. Under Dean, the Democrats made remarkable inroads in some of the most unlikely places. A piece detailed Democratic successes in the 20 reddest states under Dean:
  • State House seats: Net gain of 39 seats, a 2 percent increase of all seats in the states analyzed

  • State Senate seats: Net loss of two seats

  • Governorships: Net loss of one

  • Attorney generalships: Net gain of one (elected seats only)

  • U.S. House seats: Net gain of three seats

  • U.S. Senate seats: Net gain of one seat

  • Presidential performance: In 15 of the 20 states, the Democratic nominee saw an increase in vote share between 2004 and 2008. In three other states, the vote share remained constant. It dropped in only two states
Now let's look at Democratic results in those same 20 red state in the four years after Dean's departure in 2009:
  • State House seats: Net loss of 249 seats, a decrease of 13 percent of the existing seats in those states

  • State Senate seats: Net loss of 84 seats, a decrease of 12 percent

  • Governorships: A decrease by half, from eight governors to four

  • Attorney generalships: A drop by two-thirds in elected AGs, from nine to three

  • U.S. House seats: A 40 percent drop, from 44 seats to 26

  • U.S. Senate seats: A drop from 11 seats to 8. (It could drop further by 2014: Of those eight remaining seats, three senators are retiring and another three face tough reelection contests.)

  • Presidential performance: Only two of the 20 states (Alaska and Mississippi) saw higher support for Obama in 2012 than in 2008. In most of the 20 solidly red states, Obama's 2012 vote fell back roughly to John Kerry's level from 2004.
The numbers are devastating. Now, it has to be said that Democrats rode a wave in 2006 and had Obama in 2008. But the damage at the state level is hard to explain solely by those national trends. And it only got worse in the four years since then. Dean was broadly supported by the state party chairs who benefited from the resources that Dean and the DNC provided. He was opposed by those elements in the DNC who were simply focused on national elections. It certainly looks like it's time for Democrats to bring back at least parts of Dean's fifty state strategy.

Brooklynbadboy at Daily Kos had a really prescient piece the other day about how the Democrats need to move forward and restore its geographic majority. Rather than obsessively focusing on the disenchanted white working class in the upper Midwest, he points to five fast-growing states, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, as the real future for the Democratic party. The reason for focusing on these states is that they are within reasonable reach but more importantly they are states whose population is growing, meaning they will be adding House seats in the coming years. On the other hand, the populations in the states in the upper Midwest are actually shrinking and the number of House seats will correspondingly shrink as well. He believes that Democrats are seriously underperforming, especially at the local level, in areas of these states purely through lack of effort and organization. He points to Gwinnett County in Georgia "where there is absolutely no excuse for Democrats to have ZERO seats on the Board of Commissioners. The County is only 53% white, trending down. Hillary Clinton won the county, the first Democrat to do so since favorite son Jimmy Carter. It is affluent, suburban, diverse. All five Commissioners are white ultra conservative Republicans. Ridiculous. That's just neglect. Especially considering the county has 18 Georgia House seats and 7 Georgia Senate seats. Not to mention nutcase Congressmen Woodall and Hice. Make Gwinnett a blue County and suddenly Georgia is a true swing state." I suggest you read his whole piece as it makes enormous sense and illustrates the failure of the Democratic party establishment. That does not mean we abandon the Midwest at all. This is a 50 state strategy after all. But throwing some additional resources into these states only makes sense.

Flipping these states will not happen in 2018. But they may well be critical, especially at the state level, for the 2020 election and the redistricting that will come after the 2020 census. It is time for the DNC to focus once again on supporting the state and local parties in a meaningful way. And it is up to Democrats all over the country to provide the resources our candidates need. Let's hope the DNC can get its act together whoever becomes its chairman next week. The future of the party will depend on it.

Astronomy Adventure - Phases Of Venus

As the Earth and Venus both revolve around the Sun, Venus actually moves through phases just like the Moon. Here are two pics showing Venus's changing phases. The first pic was taken in late December or early January and the second just a few days ago. You can see how the planet has moved from just over half illuminated to a crescent in just over two months.

First photo details:
Telescope: Starblast 4.5
Magnification: ~150X with variable polarizing filter
Camera: iPhone 6 with Night Cap Pro
Post-Processing: Gimp using Curves

Second photo details:
Telescope: Starblast 4.5
Magnification: ~150X with yellow filter
Camera: iPhone 6 with Night Cap Pro
Post-Processing: None

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

ISIS Is Collapsing But Trump May Enhance Its Recruiting In Order To Help Putin

While Donald Trump rants and raves and lies about all the terrorists flocking across our borders, the largest and most dangerous terrorist organization is on the verge of collapse. It looks like Obama's strategy of a slow but methodical attack on ISIS with a minimum of direct US involvement has led to the collapse of the organization and its prized caliphate in Iraq and Syria, its most important propaganda tool.

A new report by King's College in London says that ISIS has already accepted it will lose its entire physical presence in Iraq and Syria and is preparing to shift to becoming mostly an online presence. The number of new ISIS recruits has shrunk to a trickle and its existing forces are beginning to melt away. The successful recapture of Mosul by largely Iraqi forces has left Raqqa in Syria as its final stronghold, a city that is already under attack. According to the report, "If compelled to, the group’s true believers will simply retreat into the virtual world, where they will use the vast archive of propaganda assembled by the group over these past few years to keep themselves buoyant with nostalgia". The Post article adds, "The plan reveals a level of desperation for a terrorist organization that has seen its territory shrink rapidly over the past year".

No doubt Donald Trump will take credit for eliminating the caliphate and ISIS, but the reality will be that it was largely accomplished through Obama's patient strategy. But apparently Trump and his administration don't realize that ISIS is already largely defeated. Reports tonight indicate that the Department of Defense is recommending sending ground troops into Northern Syria in order to "speed up" the defeat of ISIS. Presumably, this means coordinating with Syrian Army and the Russians to retake Raqqa. And, at the same time, aiding Bashir al-Assad in regaining total control of Syria, as the Russians have always wanted, not only by eliminating ISIS but also by allowing Syrian/Russian military forces to clear out the rebels in the west of the country.

If there is anything that would revive ISIS and Islamic terrorist recruiting, it would be the presence of American ground troops in Syria. And if there is anything that would make the Russians happier, it would be to have their client state in Syria back in one piece. Trump looks ready to bizarrely please them both.

Russia Keeps On Testing Trump And Gets Little Or No Response

Russia looks like it is stepping up the pressure on the Trump administration, exploiting not only their "relationship" with Trump but also the disarray within the administration. First, the Russians have deployed an intermediate range ballistic missile which looks to be in clear violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement signed between Reagan and Gorbachev way back in 1987. In addition, other reports say that a Russian spy ship is currently located off the coast of Groton, Connecticut, the home of the US submarine fleet. This is the first time since 2015 that Russian ships have been patrolling the US coast since 2015. Meanwhile, the fighting in Ukraine continues to escalate driven, in part, by both sides impressions of the incoming Trump administration. And today, reports detailed Russian planes buzzing a US naval warship in the Black Sea.

So far, as far as I can determine, there has been no official reaction from any of the Trump principals to the Russian's important violation of the INF treaty. Trump, Tillerson, and Mattis have said nothing on the incident. (If I'm wrong on this, please let me know.) The only response has been from the State Department spokesman saying, "We do not comment on intelligence matters. We have made very clear our concerns about Russia’s violation, the risks it poses to European and Asian security, and our strong interest in returning Russia to compliance with the treaty." As an aside, those were the words of the acting spokesman as the Trump administration has yet to properly fill the spot, yet another indication of the administration's incompetence and disarray. More importantly, a weak and un-unified response from the US and its Asian and European allies that allows the Russians to deploy these missiles will only result in a missile buildup in Europe and in China. Considering Europe's belief that Trump's commitment to NATO is wavering, the impetus for that escalation will be strong.

The other actions such as buzzing US ships and patrolling the US coast are normal maneuvers designed to test or signal the US. And that signal is clearly that Russia is flexing its muscle and seeing what kind of response it will get.

And once again, another foreign government is testing the new President and his administration. And once again, the response is weak and muddled and, in this case, almost nonexistent.

The Deep State vs. Donald Trump As Our Democracy Hangs In The Balance

There is some serious blood in the water as it is clear that the intelligence community has essentially declared war on Donald Trump. The resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser (NSA) looks to be merely a prelude to some serious trouble for Trump and his administration. As both Eli Lake and Martin Longman point out, whatever you make think of him, and I think he's a delusional loose canon, Flynn was clearly brought down by targeted leaks from the intelligence community.

The ostensible reason for Flynn's firing, and that's what it is, was because he misled Pence and other members of Trump's team about whether he had discussed the newly imposed sanctions that Obama had put in place in a call with the Russian ambassador in late December. But after acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the Trump administration that Flynn had indeed lied, it appears the administration did nothing. Yates was backed up in her presentation by then CIA Director John Brennan and DNI James Clapper. Yates told the White House that Flynn could be subject to blackmail by the Russians for that lie, but the real possibility of blackmail should have gone out the window when the Trump administration was informed about the lie. Instead the Trump team was silent and let Flynn continue in his role with access to the nation's secrets.

That was a test for the Trump administration and it failed. Flynn was clearly severely compromised and apparently in way over his head as NSA, so it would not be surprising for the intelligence agencies to want to get rid of him. And they gave Trump the time and the opportunity to do it. When Trump did not act, the intelligence agencies decided to do the dirty work for him. When the story about Yates' warning came out, Flynn and the Trump team were in an impossible situation. You could not have the NSA lying to the Vice President. In addition, you could not have the President know that the NSA was lying and do nothing about it. Other stories were also out there that Flynn had possibly lied to the FBI in an interview about his Russian contacts, that Flynn was being investigated by the Army for payments received from Russia, that the intelligence services were withholding certain information because the Russians "had ears" in the Situation Room, and that Flynn had multiple contacts with the Russians even during the campaign. There was no way Flynn could survive this barrage of damning leaks. And, to be clear, all those leaks had to be coming from inside the intelligence services. It may also be more than a coincidence that the leaks brought the Flynn issue to a head immediately after the launch of an intermediate range missile by North Korea.

If the idea was to get rid of Flynn, then the intelligence services' job was finished on Monday night. Yes, Trump might face some uncomfortable questions about why he did nothing after finding out Flynn lied, but that could be handled any number of ways, certainly by saying that Flynn assured him that the discussions about the sanctions were general in nature and no promises were made. That may very well be true or the transcripts will show that Flynn really did make explicit promises about the sanctions. Either way, Trump can claim some deniability, pick a new NSA, and try to move on.

On the other hand, if the intelligence services believe that Trump himself is similarly compromised or have seen enough of his instability and ignorance to make them believe he is simply not up to the job, the revelation that Flynn lied and Trump essentially abetted that lie is just the opening salvo in their attempt to actually get rid of Trump. And last night's story from the New York Times reporting that the Trump campaign had frequent contacts with the Russians while Russia was doing its best to hack the election for Donald Trump seems to indicate that the intelligence services do believe Trump is compromised and are going to act on that belief. The report is a clear threat to Trump's presidency. In less than a day, the story has morphed from a theoretical and never punished Logan Act infraction by a senior Trump adviser to the fact that the current President was potentially colluding with Russia during and after the campaign. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to back that theory up such as Trump's unwillingness to criticize Russia and Putin, his calling on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton, and his seeming lack of interest in the fact that Flynn did discuss the sanctions with the Russian ambassador. I would expect that there will be further revelations about the general content of those contacts. According to the Times, "The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians." I would think all of those details will emerge in one way or another in due course.

The next question is one that Rachel Maddow addressed on her show last night and that is who exactly is going to investigate these allegations and answer the innumerable questions that are now hanging out there. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a senior member of Trump's campaign. House Intelligence chairman Nunes was on the Trump transition team and is focused on identifying the leaks, not what Flynn was up to. Says Nunes, "We are going to be outlining all of our concerns over the last 60 days that appear to all be related, maybe even coordinated in some ways," committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told Fox News. "I am going to be asking the FBI to do an assessment of this to tell us what's going on here because we cannot continue to have these leaks as a government." Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee simply thinks this is a personnel change at the discretion of the President, saying, "Mike Flynn served his country with distinction. The president needs a national security adviser whom he can trust and I defer to him to decide who best fills that role". Chaffetz, head of the House Oversight committee believe that the Flynn resignation simply took care of the problem. James Comey at the FBI not only now reports to Sessions but is simply not credible after his unlawful interference in the election. All the usual avenues for any type of real investigation are fatally compromised at this point.

It seems we are at an extraordinary crisis point in our democracy. As Eli Lake says in his article, "Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do." This is absolutely correct. The leaks are illegal. They are destructive. And they are anti-democratic.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that Trump is somehow severely compromised by the Russian government. Trump and those in his administration repeatedly and continually lie about the extensive contacts they have had with the Russians during and after the campaign. It defies credulity that Flynn did not know his conversations with the Russian ambassador were being monitored, meaning he felt comfortable talking about the sanctions, probably because those were his instructions. It defies credulity that Trump would keep Flynn on knowing that he lied about the sanctions discussion, unless Trump himself approved. Trump has shown himself to be mentally unfocused and unstable, a narcissistic and compulsive liar who is clearly engaged in enriching himself and his family through the use of his office. He refuses to release his taxes and thereby hides who controls his purse strings. He ignores the Constitution, belittles the judiciary, and has a penchant for authoritarianism. He has shown himself to be incapable of managing a bureaucracy like the US Government. Hundreds of sub-cabinet positions remain open. He runs the government with a small cabal of advisers and refuses to use the institutional knowledge of the government bureaucracy to help craft and enforce his policies. His closest adviser believes that war with China and Iran is inevitable and we might as well fight those wars while we still have a significant military advantage. Trump's Muslim ban is putting Americans at risk around the world. He has alienated important allies in Europe, Australia, and, yes, Mexico. The chain of command is broken as Mattis and Tillerson have essentially been missing in action since their confirmations. The response to provocations by Iran, North Korea, and now Russia has been muddled and weak. Those who oppose the US already see Trump as a "paper tiger" who can be easily intimidated. He won the election in the Electoral College by less than 100,000 votes across three states and suffered a massive popular vote defeat. The sustained protests since his inauguration seem to be growing rather than diminishing and Trump is intent on dividing the country further, as opposed to trying to bring the country together. He is quite clearly a danger to the safety of the country and a threat to our democracy.

In addition, the usual check on presidential overreach lies primarily with the Congress. But this GOP-controlled Congress has shown no regard for democracy for the last few decades, culminating in the refusal to sit a Supreme Court justice. They answer only to their corporate overlords and will do nothing to rein in Trump until that mission is completed. Incredibly, there seems not to be one GOP Senator who is willing to defy their party and Trump to stand up for democracy. McCain and Graham make all the right noises but never follow through. Democrats are powerless and the judiciary can only do so much, even when it is not being undermined.

There are so many dangers that lie ahead. Trump will not go easily. He and the Republicans are already gearing up for a massive witch hunt in an attempt to find the leakers. The chances that reporters will be jailed and dragged into court to divulge their source are pretty high, as are extrajudicial attempts to use the massive power of the surveillance state. The right wing propaganda machine is already glomming onto the meme that these leaks are an attempt by Obama officials still within the government to destroy Trump, that this is the bureaucracy combating and undermining Trump because he is "shaking things up". The world will look on in horror as the state and the country goes to war with itself. And our enemies will take advantage of our weakness.

The irony of our situation is that Trump won election through a silent coup by a cabal within the FBI and abetted by James Comey. Now Trump' presidency is under threat from a counter-coup by the intelligence services. Our democracy is severely crippled as the popular vote winner in 2 of the last 5 elections has not ascended to the presidency. Through aggressive gerrymandering, Republicans control the House, despite winning 1.5 million fewer votes nationwide. The people still can make their voices heard but seem powerless to control this battle between two potent anti-democratic forces, the deep state and Donald Trump. When Trump was elected I wondered but believed our democracy would somehow survive. Today, I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Gary Cohn Also Believes In "Alternative Facts"

I think that people sometimes believe that just because you head a big Wall Street firm, you are, by definition, an experienced and informed macroeconomist. But, in many cases, this is far from the reality. Many of these executives are just dealmakers and/or good political and bureaucratic infighters.

Gary Cohn at least has some pretty deep experience in the commodities and fixed income markets which means he has a pretty good understanding of interest rates and currency fluctuations. On the other hand, he is basically a trader at heart, reported to be aggressive and abrasive, and, as one peer described Cohn, "When you become arrogant, in a trading sense, you begin to think that everybody's a counterparty, not a customer, not a client".

Cohn is reported to have become Trump's go-to guy on actual domestic policy, including tax cuts and tax reform, regulatory relief, and even figuring out what to do with the Affordable Care Act. All of these are priorities for the GOP Congress. He is also apparently able to explain to Trump that his massive infrastructure promise will either mean the government will have to spend money that Republicans would prefer to give away in tax cuts or find private partners that will take on these projects. That seemed to be news to Trump.

More important to Cohn and his Wall Street cohorts is the rolling back of increased capital and regulatory requirements for banks. According to Cohn, "Liquidity provided by the central banks is now being trapped into the banks because of the increasing capital and regulatory requirements." Of course there is no indication that companies are having difficulty finding financing these days. On the other hand, reduced capital requirements mean more money for bonuses for executives and shareholders of the banks. In addition, Cohn also seems fixated on other countries engaging in what he believes is currency manipulation to the detriment of the United States.

In addition, Cohn has shown himself to be completely clueless about employment. Bill McBride over at Calculated Risk completely eviscerates Cohn on his claims about unemployment. In a recent Bloomberg article, Cohn is quoted as saying the current unemployment rate "is a very, very fictitious rate. It’s only that low because the participation rate has gone downward...The participation rate really measures people out in the U.S. population that are looking for jobs. There are so many people who are frustrated looking for jobs that they’ve just stopped. If the participation rate normalized -- this is a fun fact -- if it normalized to Day 1 of the Obama administration, we’d still be at an 11 percent plus unemployment rate."

This fact is not "fun"; it's simply not a fact. The participation rate is the number of people who are actively looking for a job or actually have a job as a percentage of the total number of working age people. The participation rate effects the unemployment rate because the unemployment rate is the number of people actively looking for a job but don't have one as a percentage of those participating in the labor force. So the number of people employed could stay static but the unemployment rate would increase of the participation rate increased. One of the larger issues during the Great Recession is that the participation rate decreased because workers became so discouraged that they were no longer actively looking for a job and technically were no longer considered part of the labor force. But, by last year, it was clear that discouraged workers were no longer part of the reason for the lower participation rate. Because of the existence of discouraged workers, Trump and his team say the unemployment rate is bogus. But the problems of discouraged workers in the unemployment rate has been there for years and there is no indication that it is now significantly more extreme than in the past. In fact, there is separate measure of unemployment that does try to capture the number of discouraged workers and that is called the U6. In 2006, U6 reached a low of 8.4% and went up as high as 16% in 2010. Today it stands around 9.4%.

As McBride points out, Cohn is ignoring his own Goldman Sachs economist who said, "At this point, we see the cyclical 'participation gap' as nearly closed." This means that any changes in participation are more determined by long term trends, primarily changing demographics. As McBride has frequently pointed out, the main reason the participation rate is declining is because the first wave of baby boomers is retiring. An additional factor is that more an more young people are continuing their education into college and graduate school.

The good news is that Cohn at least thinks that the unemployment is only 11%. Trump has claimed many times that the "true" unemployment rate is somewhere over 40%. So maybe he can convince Trump that things aren't all that bad. The bad news, of course, is that Cohn also lives in the Trump world of "alternative facts".

Oroville Dam Failure Is Another Example Of Failure To Invest In Infrastructure

The unfolding disaster in Northern California is yet another example of the deleterious effects of Republican obstruction to infrastructure investment over the last eight years. But it also reflects decades of underinvestment in maintaining, rebuilding, and improving our critical infrastructure. Last May I wrote about the dismal state of America's dams and levees and detailed that much of the problem with maintenance comes from the fact that a majority of our dams are actually privately owned. An additional problem is that dams are principally the responsibility of the individual states and the states are notoriously weak in monitoring the state of those structures.

In this case, the Oroville dam is the responsibility of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and holds the state's second largest reservoir. Obviously, DRW is confronted with an extreme situation as California's drought has ended with a winter that has seen one storm after another dump record amounts of snow and rain, especially in Northern California. This has created a situation where the dam is essentially more than 100% full.

In order to deal with that situation and prepare for further storms coming this week, DWR started releasing water down the main overflow spillway. Unfortunately, a huge hole suddenly began to appear in the spillway and water escaped beyond the spillway boundaries as it flowed down into the Feather River. Because of that and the prediction of more impending storms, DWR also began to use the emergency spillway until that area began to also erode rapidly. This was the first time the emergency spillway, rather than just the overflow spillway, had been used since the dam was built over a half century ago.

The erosion in both spillways has created immense concern for everyone. The erosion of the emergency spillway drove the order for the mass evacuation of Oroville and the surrounding areas and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The concern is that the emergency spillway actually collapses and sends a 30 foot wall of water cascading into the communities below and severely damaging the reservoir's capacity for years.

The sad part about all this was it was entirely predictable. In 2005, when the dam was being re-licensed, three environmental groups filed a motion to require the state to reinforce the emergency spillway with concrete in a similar fashion to the overflow spillway. That would keep free flowing water from eroding the emergency spillway hillside and threatening the stability of the dam. The concrete upgrade would have cost $100 million and none of the beneficiaries of the dam, which not only includes the Oroville area but also most of the Central Valley and Southern California that relies on the reservoir for its water, could agree on how to shoulder the cost. That all became moot when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that the spillway met its guidelines and stated that they expected there would be minimal erosion if the emergency spillway need to be used. That ruling has turned out to be a phenomenal error. The DRW had only released 3% of the amount of water the emergency spillway was supposed to handle and the erosion was already extreme.

Even if the dam survives this rainy season, the damage will still already be enormous. The emergency spillway will need to be reinforced and the overflow spillway will need to be repaired. In addition, the silt that has flowed into the Feather River from both spillways could impede the flow of water down into the Central Valley and Southern California, requiring a massive dredging operation. And that's just if the dam survives.

If , God forbid, the emergency spillway actually collapses, it will not only create a huge flooding issue downstream as a 30 foot wall of water moves through the Feather River channel but also severely impact the availability of water in the Central Valley and Southern California. Even worse, the collapse of the spillway will create even further erosion, potentially effecting the integrity of the dam itself. The loss of access to the Oroville reservoir would be an unimaginable disaster for the rest of California. It is a striking irony that California has suffered through years of drought and now may potentially lose a huge source of water because there is actually too much of it.

Meanwhile, the close to 200,000 people who have been evacuated will not be going home anytime soon, at least for the next week or more. The disruption to their lives and livelihoods will be difficult. They are now essentially internal refugees and it seems the Trump administration has the same attitude toward them as they do to external refugees. Although FEMA is on the scene, there has not been a peep about the situation from the Trump administration and Governor Brown's request for an emergency to be declared has been met with silence. Perhaps because California is a blue state or, more likely, because of the general ineptitude of the Trump administration, I guess we shouldn't be too surprised.

Flynn Is Out; Are Priebus, Spicer Next?

It is hard to believe that we are less than one month in to the administration of that vaunted business executive Donald Trump and we are already discussing what senior Presidential advisor has lost or will imminently lose their job.

We have already documented the problems that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was facing. Flynn has clearly lied to the public about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador in a call in late December while the country was still nominally run by the Obama administration. Worse, Flynn repeated his lie to Mike Pence who then repeated the lie to the press and the public. Democrats have called for an investigation and the suspension of Flynn's security clearance. Nancy Pelosi demanded he be fired. According to the Washington Post, Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General until Trump fired her for not defending his Muslim ban, apparently warned the White House that Flynn had lied and was therefore subject to blackmail by the Russians. Obama's Director of National Intelligence and his CIA director backed up Yates in her warning to the White House. This, of course, means Trump and his team have been aware of Flynn's lies for weeks and did absolutely nothing to resolve it.

Cynical minds would say that seems "interesting" and enhances the theory that Flynn was not acting on his own but with the authority of either Trump or a senior member of Trump's team. In addition, a Republican member of the House from a swing district came out and said, "If in fact he [Flynn] purposely misled the President, he should step down immediately." But that is now the real question. Did he mislead Trump or was Trump directing Flynn? We are back to "what did the President know and when did he know it?'. There were conflicting signals coming out of the White House, with some advisers including KellyAnne Conway saying Trump still has full confidence in Flynn while other reports said that replacements were already being interviewed.

Then, late last night, Flynn abruptly resigned, saying "I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador." Flynn ended his resignation letter by moving back into campaign mode with, "this team [Trump and Pence] will go down in history as one of the greatest presidencies in US history, and I firmly believe the American people will be well served as they all work together to help Make America Great Again". Nothing like having to kiss the ring before you get the axe.

Flynn's resignation will not be the end of this story about Trump's Russian connections. Flynn has clearly had contacts with the Russians before and after the election and is now being investigated for receiving actual payments from the Russians in 2015. And the fact that Trump and his team knew about Flynn's lies for weeks will leave the Watergate question hanging out there for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Trump confidante Chris Ruddy has taken aim at Reince Priebus, blistering him in an interview on CNN this weekend. Said Ruddy, "The White House is showing not the amount of order that we need to see. I think there’s a lot of weakness coming out of the chief of staff. I think Reince Priebus, good guy, well-intentioned ― but he clearly doesn’t know how the federal agencies work. He doesn’t have a really good system. He doesn’t know how the communications flow". Interestingly, Chris Christie is scheduled to have lunch with Trump today. Christie, as you might remember, was originally the head of Trump's transition team and was at least mentioned as a possible chief of staff, that is until both the prosecution and the defense in the Bridgegate trial stipulated that Christie flat out lied about his role in that scandal.

Finally, it has also been reported that Trump has been less than happy with his press secretary, Sean Spicer. Spicer is in theory holding down two jobs, press secretary and communications director. It has been reported that the Trump administration is looking to finally hire a communications director to lighten Spicer's load. That is probably made a bit more complicated by the presence of KellyAnne Conway who basically fills that role in deed, but seems to have a undefined job and relationship to Trump. On the other hand, it may be that Trump is actually searching for a replacement for Spicer and using the communications director opening as a cover. In addition, Trump's unhappiness with Spicer also reflects badly on Priebus. According to a source, "Priebus vouched for Spicer and against Trump's instincts," and Trump "regrets it every day and blames Priebus."

Three weeks into the new administration and already one senior adviser is toast and two other senior positions are apparently under the gun. So far, the Trump administration seems to be constant chaos. This is just more than growing pains for a new administration. It is a reflection of Trump's erratic personality and management style. Even if all three of these officials are replaced with people Trump handpicks, it is hard to see that this will not be a continual issue going forward. Whenever things turn south for Trump, it will be time for heads to roll and to find fall guys for the failure. It's the way Trump has worked in the past and the way he will work in the future.

Flynn's resignation is yet another indication of the dysfunction and incompetence in the Trump administration. Firing Priebus and/or Spicer at this point will damage the administration's credibility even further in the short term. And, as I said, there is no guarantee that Trump will be happy with whoever he gets to replace them. Trump is painfully well aware of his abysmal approval ratings and his enormous ego will require someone to publicly take the blame for that. Even though Flynn is gone, I wouldn't feel to secure if I was Priebus or Spicer.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Another Group Of GOP Voters Finally Realizes Republicans Will Screw Them

Last week, I wrote about the legislature in Iowa stripping the rights of public unions to negotiate anything but wages. The state would unilaterally dictate the terms of health care, workplace conditions, seniority, and pensions. The Republican controlled legislature did, however, recognize the overwhelming support it has among cops and fireman so those two unions were exempted under the guise that "they put their lives on the line for the community".

Unfortunately, it looks like the cops and fireman could see through this smokescreen and realized that it was only a matter of time, perhaps the next contract renewal, before this law would be extended to them. In fact, some of the provisions in the bill still did extend to those unions, particularly the repeal of "just cause" firings. That would leave even cops and firefighters jobs dependent solely on the whims of their senior officers with no recourse for being arbitrarily fired. Cops and firefighters flocked to the Statehouse to protest this legislation. Said one police officer about the bill, "It’s collective begging, that’s what it is. Half of law enforcement folks I work with are Republicans. And we voted for Republicans because of conservative values. But we didn’t vote for Republicans to get stabbed in the back while we’re trying to dodge cars and bullets."

That may not be what he voted for but that's what he's going to get. It appears that the legislature will push this bill through sometime later this week.

Maurice Greenberg, Face of AIG, Finally Admits His Guilt

Once again, another corporate criminal settles with the government on a Friday. This time it is Maurice Greenberg, former chief executive of American International Group (AIG) who reached a settlement with New York State where he admitted his planning and approval of two transactions that were specifically designed to distort AIG's true financial situation. Joining Greenberg in the settlement was the company's former chief financial officer, Howard Smith. While the two acknowledged their primary roles in these sham deals, neither admitted to committing fraud. In addition, the two agreed to give up nearly $10 million in bonuses that they had accrued after these transactions took place and covered the period where AIG's financials were misstated. In other words, it was a typical Wall Street settlement where everyone admits to taking actions that are clearly illegal without admitting to any illegality. It's a pretty nice racket.

The case was originally brought in 2005 as part of a battle between Greenberg and then NY Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. Spitzer had gone after numerous Wall Street firms, gaining convictions on "independent" research being used to tout stocks favored by the firm, unlawful trading in mutual funds, and other more traditional schemes such as bid-rigging and kickbacks. One of Spitzer's victims was Greenberg's son Jeffrey who was forced out as head of Marsh & McLennan after the company was charged with bid-rigging and engaging in kickbacks. Greenberg claimed that Spitzer was over-prosecuting what he called "foot faults". That sentiment pretty much speaks to the criminal mindset of Wall Street executives.

The charges against AIG and Greenberg eventually forced the company to let go of Greenberg. In 2006, the firm agreed to settle charges over similar transactions and accounting fraud with the SEC, a case where AIG's own lawyers alerted the SEC that individuals in the company may have destroyed documents. But Greenberg vowed to fight for his innocence to the bitter end, primarily by appealing virtually every ruling through the full gamut of the court system.

A settlement was apparently nearly reached in 2008, but it fell apart because AIG itself collapsed and had to be bailed out by the federal government. The company bet heavily in the credit default swap (CDS) market, looking at it as an easy way to essentially pocket premiums for limited risk. AIG had over $61 billion in CDS backed by subprime mortgages but maintained that portfolio contained limited exposure and risk. But the warning signs began in 2007 as losses started to appear and counterparties demanded additional collateral. Its auditors criticized the company's risk management of the swaps, saying it was clearly a material weakness. But, by that time, it was practically too late. As the housing market crashed in 2008, AIG losses went from around $350 million to over $20 billion in the span of just six months. In September of that year, the Treasury Department, or more accurately the US taxpayers, injected $185 billion into AIG in return for an 80% stake. The bailout of AIG also helped bailout Goldman Sachs, who also received $10 billion in TARP money, because Goldman was on the other side of many of those swap contracts that AIG was now able to honor.

Meanwhile, Greenberg kept on fighting. His delaying tactics finally ended when the case finally went to trial last September. Greenberg's testimony and cross-examination continued his pattern of evasion, so much so that the trial judge had to admonish him to provide direct answers. Then last month, the lawyers involved began the negotiations that resulted in this settlement, where he finally admitted to his involvement in sham transactions after vociferously denying so for the last 11 years.

Maurice Greenberg was AIG. He was the face of the company and a hands-on manager. And his penchant for illegal, sham deals set the tone for the rest of the company. That attitude was in no small part responsible for AIG's subsequent collapse during the financial crisis. More than anything, though, Greenberg's attitude towards illegal behavior as merely "foot faults" is typical of Wall Street executives.

Flynn And The Russian Connections Finally Resurface

After disappearing from the radar screen for a few weeks, it looks like Trump's Russian connections are back with a vengeance. And increasingly the focus is on National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

CNN is reporting that various pieces of information in the "Russian dossier" that accused the Trump campaign of numerous contacts with Russia are apparently being confirmed by US intelligence sources. Most of this information concerns meetings and discussions between individuals on specific days that the intelligence agencies have been able to verify actually occurred. This, of course, lends even more credence to the other allegations in the document. Intelligence officials stressed that they have not been able to verify any of the most shocking accusations such as the fact that the Russians have material with which to blackmail Trump. It is doubtful those allegations will ever be "proved".

In a more disturbing development, it appears that Flynn actually did speak to the Russian ambassador about the new sanctions Obama put in place over Russian hacking in the weeks preceding Trump's inauguration. Flynn has repeatedly denied this accusation, and Vice President Pence has repeated Flynn's denial. But now Flynn has backed off his explicit denial and is now saying he "had no recollection of discussing sanctions", but "he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up." In addition, it now appears certain that Flynn was in frequent contact with the Russian ambassador before and after the election. This puts a lie to another Pence claim, that there had been no contact between the Trump campaign and Russia.

At least nine officials privy to the details of the call now say that Flynn did discuss the sanctions with the Russian ambassador and, according to the Washington Post story, "Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president." Because Flynn was in essence negotiating with the Russians while he was still just an American citizen rather than a representative of the US Government, this is a clear violation of the Logan Act. For obvious reasons, no one has ever been prosecuted for a Logan Act violation and it is probable that Flynn will not be the first.

Flynn will probably have bigger worries than the Logan Act. It was probably not a good move to put Pence out there to lie for him as that will certainly create some backlash. More intriguing is the request by Democrat Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee for the FBI and intelligence community to confirm whether Flynn discussed sanctions and if he used encryption to avoid having those communications monitored. Schiff asks the relevant question, "It’s far less significant if he violated the Logan Act and far more significant if he willfully misled this country. Why would he conceal the nature of the call unless he was conscious of wrongdoing?" Democrats are on the attack, with both Pelosi and Cummings suggesting Flynn should have his security clearance at least temporarily revoked.

In another apparently related incident, one of Flynn's top aides was denied a security clearance by the CIA. Although it is probable there was at least a legitimate reason for this denial, it has also fueled the war between the Trump administration and the CIA, with Trump aides call it "a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him". Additionally, there are reports tonight that the CIA is withholding certain sensitive information from the White House because the assumption is that the Kremlin has eyes and ears inside the Situation Room. It is hard not to see this as a situation that is untenable for any prolonged period of time.

For Trump, firing Flynn would be the easy way out and something every other President would have done by now. But Trump obviously is quite loyal to Flynn which complicates that easy decision. Interestingly, Stephen Miller, who was doing the rounds of the Sunday chat shows spouting unrelenting false propaganda, refused to comment on the Flynn situation, saying, "They [the White House] did not give me anything to say." That is hardly a big vote of confidence. the other hand, Flynn is clearly a loose canon. One of the drivers of his dalliance with Putin was the fact that Obama fired him. If, as seems possible, Trump or members of the Trump administration instructed Flynn to discuss the sanctions, it would be far more prudent to keep him on the inside rather than throwing him to the curb where who knows what he would do. But the longer Trump sticks with Flynn, the longer it looks like Trump is keeping him on because of the Russian connections and the longer it will keep the story in the news. Both firing Flynn or keeping him in place looks bad. Either way it is a lose, lose situation for Trump. And anytime Trump loses, that is a win for the country.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Astronomy Adventure - A Crescent Moon

The weather has really been atrocious since the beginning of the year with hardly any clear nights for viewing. A couple of nights, I brought out the telescope and let it cool down and it had clouded over completely in that half hour. There was at least one good night earlier this month with a lovely view of a crescent moon and Venus to its upper left. Not in the picture but also visible was Mars above and to the left of Venus.

The large circular area just north of the middle of the picture is the Mare Crisium.

Media Conveniently Forgets Democrats Have Policies Focused On The Working Class

Timothy Egan had one of the most annoying op-eds in the NY Times yesterday. While he accurately details the atrocities of the Trump administration and the fact that Republicans in Congress and around the country don't seem to be bothered, he also makes the rather obvious point that Democrats are powerless to stop Trump and the GOP. And while Democrats are feeling good about the widespread and passionate resistance that Trump has generated, Egan warns that this is merely a "sugar high".

According to Egan, "The Democrats shouldn’t mistake a sugar high for nutrition. They’re still getting their butts kicked. Being Not Trump gained them only a net of six seats in the House in November’s election, and will not be enough to win a majority in 2018. Reliance on identity politics and media-cushioned affirmation, and a blind spot to the genuine pain of the white working class, is precisely what produced a President Trump. For the next year, Democrats should filter their policy initiatives through the eyes of the person Trump claims to speak for — the forgotten American...Democrats also lost 1,034 state and federal offices in his [Obama's] time. Whites are still 70 percent of the vote. If Democrats continue to hemorrhage voters among the working class, they will never see the presidency, or even expect to govern in one house, for a long time...But they have to be for something, as well — a master policy narrative, promoting things that help average Americans."

PLEASE! It is no wonder that Democrats continue to lose elections with supposedly insightful analysis like this that merely parrots complete mythology and not reality. In addition, Democratic results up and down the ballot in the 2016 election were critically injured by the press's obsession with emails and refusal to even acknowledge the actual economic policies Hillary Clinton and Democrats were proposing. And then James Comey struck the fatal blow.

So let's look at the reality that Egan so assiduously ignores - actual Democratic policies that were targeted at working class, average Americans. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed that the vast majority of American families, working class especially, would be able to send their children to public universities for free. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed 12 weeks of family leave and 12 weeks of medical leave for all workers, including the working class. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed limiting child care expenses, even for those working class families with children, to 10% of their income. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed doubling the child tax credit, which would again include many working class families. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed expanding Medicare to those 55 and older, including those older members of the working class. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed using the negotiating power of Medicare to reduce drug prices and allow Americans to import drugs from lower-cost countries. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed raising the minimum wage and increasing Social Security. Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed a card check system to make it easier for working class Americans to form a union. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats proposed a real infrastructure plan, not just tax credits for business cronies, and even had real plans to transform the economy of coal country and really put those unemployed coal miners back to work. And, of course, Hillary Clinton and Democrats proposed maintaining and improving the Affordable Care Act, which has undoubtedly save thousands of working class, average American lives.

It's possible that Egan is actually unaware of these facts, but I doubt it. Perhaps he thinks these proposals aren't "promoting things that help average Americans." If that is the case, then it would be helpful if he could enlighten us as to the policies Democrats need to embrace. Maybe he thinks it's as simple as having Democrats just say "we're going to bring those jobs back" and leave it at that. On the other hand, maybe the Democrats' problem in reaching the American working class has less to do with their actual policies and more to do with the fact that the media, including people like Egan, actually ignore or distort the Democratic message. Rather than asking Democratic party to do things it already does, perhaps Egan should look in the mirror and actually do the job he is paid to do.

Natural Weekends - Snowbirds

Even a foot of snow does not deter the few remaining birds on the creek from their tidal meals.