Saturday, February 25, 2017

With Intelligence Committees Compromised, Russia Investigation Must Move To Special Prosecutor

I'm guessing that last night's story that the White House not only pressured the FBI but also other intelligence agencies and the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence committees to push back on the story about the connections between the Russians and the Trump campaign has even most Republicans in Congress convinced that the investigation must be moved to an independent prosecutor or commission now.

The inappropriateness of what Priebus and the White House engaged in by pressuring other intelligence groups to refute the Russia connection story is staggering. I think the Iraq debacle should have taught us all the stupidity of trying to tell the intelligence agencies what they must find and say. While the FBI may have told Priebus that they believed the Times story was overblown, they refused to say so publicly. Did Priebus use the FBI as a source when he went to the other intelligence agencies and the Intelligence Committee heads? Did those agencies and individuals simply take Priebus at his word before they went and pushed back on the story to the press? Those questions are just a start.

The GOP heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, Nunes and Burr, are now completely compromised, have both repeated what Priebus wanted them to say to the press. As Jim Himes, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee said, there is nothing that his committee has seen that could allow any member of the committee to make a determination one way or the other about the extent of the Russian connections.

Already, some vulnerable Republicans see the handwriting on the wall. Darrell Issa called for a special prosecutor or commission last night. Lindsey Graham has already called for a special congressional committee. I expect McCain to join them on a Sunday show tomorrow.

The remaining question is will McConnell give in or still try to hold the line as the story makes it harder to move the GOP agenda forward. More importantly, will Trump allow it. Based on his overreaction to just the Times story, that seems unlikely. If so, the break between the GOP in Congress and Trump may come much sooner than we think.

GOP Attacks On Press And Protest Are Driven By Fear And Weakness, Not Strength

The Trump administration's unprecedented action in blocking a number of prominent news organizations from an off-camera press briefing has created understandable outrage. It is a blatant attack on the freedom of the press and shows no regard or understanding of our Constitution, not an unusual occurrence among Republicans these days. In fact, suppressing a free press and free speech has become a staple for Republicans around the country.

Besides the bill in Arizona that I  linked to above, Martin Longman runs down the list of GOP bills in the states that are purely designed to stifle dissent. "A Florida Republican introduced a bill that would make it easier to run over protesters with your car without being legally liable. North Dakota and Tennessee Republicans have done the same. In Minnesota, Republicans are pushing a bill that would allow the police to charge protesters for the cost of policing their rallies and marches. Not to be outdone, Mississippi Republicans want to make blocking traffic a crime punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years in prison. There are also a bunch of bills coming out of states like South Dakota, Colorado, and Oklahoma aimed at greatly stiffening penalties for interfering in the operation of pipelines. So far, none of these bills have become law, and most of them are unconstitutional. But they indicate a certain mood."

In yet another example, aTrump adviser in the White House decided to call one of his critics in the media at home and berate him for his criticism. Sebastian Gorka, a White House terrorism advisor, used his personal cell phone to contact his critic and threaten to sue him. Gorka has long been a fringe figure who was never considered a terrorism expert and has been associated with anti-Semitic groups in Hungary.

All of this is frightening for our democracy just on the face of it. Trump's banning certain elements of the mainstream media is indicative of "dictatorships" and that's quoting Sean Spicer from just to months ago. And the repression of free speech and free assembly fits in that category as well. These are blatant attacks on our democracy, which, sadly, have been a hallmark of the Republican party for the last quarter century. When people and parties had real respect for the Constitution, they would never put forward or pass a bill that was knowingly unconstitutional. But the GOP in particular has made it a habit for decades to pull these kind of stunts simply to signal and trigger their base. In reality, it debases our democracy.

But it is also important to understand that this current crackdown on the press and free speech is borne out of weakness and, even more so, by fear. Certainly Trump's fear of an aggressive press is based on his own vulnerability. Hidden behind all of the Trump administration's attempts to discredit the Russian story and the attacks on the media is the plain fact that the administration has NEVER issued a blanket denial of the charge that there were ongoing contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

And hidden behind the GOP legislatures' attacks on free speech and free assembly is the fear and realization that they are truly a minority party and demographics make clear their minority status will only get worse. They currently hold the levers of power due the structure of our democracy, extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the failure of the Democratic party at the state and local level. For the nation as a whole, they are a clear minority. In any other country that calls itself a democracy, the party that won 3 million more votes in an election would wield at least some significant power. (Which makes you wonder what kind of democracy we really have left in this country.) But the important point is that, while the GOP may have substantial political power right now, most of their actions are driven by the weakness of their position, the fear that generates, and the knowledge that most of the country does not agree with their policies. And that is a point of attack for Democrats. Why are Republicans so afraid of the press and protests? Trump and the GOP love to protect this image of strength. But, as the Chinese and others have found out, when confronted they really are paper tigers. And Democrats' relentless resistance will make that clear to all.

Serial Corporate Criminal Uber Accused Of Stealing Google Technology

Another day, another potential act of criminality by Uber. Waymo, the spinoff from Google focused on autonomous vehicles, has sued Uber for stealing its technology.

The case mostly revolves around a former Google employee, Ron Levandowski, who led Google's autonomous vehicle effort. Levandowski was a pioneer in autonomous driving vehicles and Google had purchased his start-up company to help get its own program off the ground. Levandowski left Google in 2016 to form a competitor company called Otto. When he left, he also took some other Google engineers and, according to the suit, thousands of documents that included lists of suppliers and engineering and manufacturing details.

By remarkable coincidence, a mere seven months later, shortly after Levandowski received his last multimillion dollar payout from Google, Uber bought Otto in an apparent attempt to get its own autonomous vehicle program on track. With Otto came all those stolen documents as well. Google, now Waymo, was apparently alerted to the theft when a supplier inadvertently copied the company on an email detailing the circuit board behind Uber's light detection and ranging technology. The circuitry had "a striking resemblance" to the Waymo's patented technology.

The suit specifically charges "Otto and Uber have taken Waymo’s intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology. Ultimately, this calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense."

Just another day for Uber who is still reeling from the accusation of a former employee about rampant sexual harassment at the company and the complete breakdown and failure of the HR department to actually do its job rather than protecting the predators. The obvious question that hangs out there is whether Uber "poached" Levandowski and the Google trade secrets and Otto was just a temporary placeholder so Levandowski could get his full Google payout. Based on Uber's history, I'm certainly inclined to believe that's what happened. And it leads one to wonder, is there anything this serial criminal enterprise will not do?

Natural Weekends - Big Skies (Not Montana)

Friday, February 24, 2017

White House Pressuring FBI Raises More Questions For Both Of Them

I'm not the first person to make this point but it's a point worth repeating. CNN has reported that the White House, specifically Reince Priebus, asked or perhaps pressured the FBI to publicly refute the reports from the New York Times, CNN, and other sources that the members of the Trump campaign were in frequent contact with the Russians during the 2016 election.

The CNN story says that a conversation between Priebus and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe began as an aside to a separate White House meeting. McCabe is reported not to have discussed the details of the FBI's Russian investigation but it is not clear exactly what discussed. At some point later, Priebus reached out to McCabe and to (the infamous) FBI Director James Comey to ask them to either publicly or on background refute the details in the Times and elsewhere about the contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians during the election. Comey refused Priebus' request because Trump's Russian ties are under investigation. Let the irony of that sink in for a minute. The contact by Priebus appears to violate DOJ procedural memos that restrict the communications between the White House and the FBI regarding ongoing investigations.

The Trump administration initially disputed this report, saying that Priebus was called earlier in the morning by McCabe who indicated that those stories overstated what the FBI believed to be true. Of course, this was a lie and the White House had to walk this back a short time later. The present story out of the White House is that McCabe initiated the conversation indicating that reports were inaccurate at the White House meeting. Armed with that knowledge, Priebus merely asked the FBI to correct the record either publicly or off the record with reporters. There was no attempt to "pressure" the FBI to make a statement. And, since the discussions only concerned public news stories and not the investigation itself, there was no violation of those DOJ procedures. That seems like just semantics to me.

Whether you believe the White House or not, this does not look good for either the White House or the FBI. If you believe the White House version, the question becomes what was the Deputy Director of the FBI doing discussing an ongoing investigation with Priebus. And, regardless of whether you believe CNN or the White House, Priebus was clearly pressuring the FBI to release a statement about an ongoing investigation, which comes perilously close to an obstruction of justice.

Considering the FBI's remarkable interference in the last election, both of the above options reflect badly on the FBI and the Trump team. If the FBI is briefing the White House on its investigation of Trump advisers, it would be just another example of the FBI colluding with the Trump team. If Priebus felt free to pressure the FBI to deny the story, it indicates that someone in the White House was quite comfortable in asking the FBI to put out a statement that exonerated the Trump team. That certainly sounds quite similar to what happened when the FBI put out a statement right before the election that the agency had no indications that there were contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign. That statement, we know now, was false.

Either way, this just adds to the smoke that surrounds the FBI, the Trump team, and connections to Russia. And today's press briefing that excluded news outlets that have reported on those Russian connections just fans those glowing embers creating that smoke further.

The Jekyll And Hyde Administration

The Trump administration seems to be two distinct administrations in one. And they each have two different titular heads. There is the one headed by Mike Pence that is a traditional, though extreme, mainstream conservative administration. It talks about empowering Americans by rolling back regulations, providing tax cuts for the wealthy, and getting our fiscal house in order by cutting entitlements. And then there is the one headed by Trump and Bannon that probably agrees with Pence on those issues but is more interested on cracking down on immigrants and Muslims, ripping up our trade deals, backing out of our alliances, and rebuilding a new world order. It is truly schizophrenic, a Jekyll and Hyde administration, with Jekyll just slightly less evil than Hyde.

This being politics, logical consistency is not necessary and often difficult to find, but most politicians at least try to keep up the pretense of having it. And when you have two different administrations, the logical inconsistencies sometimes become quite stark and stunning. Erik Loomis lays out one brief episode in Sean Spicer's press conference yesterday. Spicer first commented on the DOJ ruling on transgender public school students being blocked from using facilities that match their gender identity. (The GOP obsession with bathrooms is really quite striking.) Spicer described the decision saying, "It’s a states’ right issue. And that’s entirely what he [Trump] believes, that if a state wants to pass a law or rule or an organization wants to do something in compliance with the state law, that’s their right, but it shouldn’t be the federal government getting in the way of this." It's interesting to note the focus on the state law, of course, because the state law in North Carolina that triggered this whole issue was to override an ordinance in the city of Charlotte that let transgender students use the facilities of their gender identity. Just minutes later, in a remarkable about face, Spicer then laid out the prospect of tighter enforcement of federal marijuana laws. Said Spicer, "I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement", but the policy would be “a question for the Department of Justice." In other words, the rights of states like Colorado and Washington that have legalized marijuana don't matter, federal law prevails. It is rare that you see such stark situational ethics, even in politics.

Steve Mnuchin used a similar tactic in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. As Kevin Drum points out, he managed to blame Obama for a slow growth economy while at the same time saying the US economy was outperforming the rest of the world. It was a pretty neat trick. According to the Journal, "Mnuchin said slower economic growth since the financial crisis had primarily been an anomaly and a result of Obama administration policies that can be reversed",  and then quoted Mnuchin directly, "We think it’s critical that we get back to more normalized economic growth. More normalized economic growth is 3% or higher." Later in the interview, Mnuchin was asked about the strength of the US dollar. His reply, "I think the strength of the dollar has a lot to do with kind of where our economy is relative to the rest of the world, and that the dollar continues to be the leading currency in the world, the leading reserve currency and a reflection of the confidence that people have in the U.S. economy." So which one is it, Steve - a slow economy due to Obama or the strength of our economy compared to the rest of the world and one that people have confidence in, again due to Obama? I'm sure he would sit there with a straight face and say both are true at the same time.

But it is not just individual Trump advisers who end up have to contradict themselves within a few sentences. Most of the time, those advisers are sent out to "interpret" what exactly the White House is saying, kind of like sweeping up after the circus parade. Most of the time this involves sending out the Pence administration to calm nerves about what the Trump administration has done. Gary Cohn, Trump's chief economic adviser, had to perform that job today. Cohn is a member of the Pence administration who has somehow managed to catch the President's ear and is now tasked with leading Trump by the nose into the Pence camp. Today, he had to go reassure business leaders that the border adjustment tax floated by the brilliant mind of Paul Ryan and House Republicans was not supported by the White House. This tax has the potential to devastate companies that rely on imports and yesterday Trump had indicated some support for the idea. Cohn performed another part of his job a few weeks ago when he managed to convince Trump that his "huge" infrastructure plan would not work because it would either have to rely on private partners or would explode the deficit. That was all apparently news to the oblivious Trump and now the infrastructure plan has been put off until 2018 when the GOP hopes it can be used as a political weapon. Of course, the Pence administration has no interest in an infrastructure plan because that would mean spending money.

Where the dichotomy in administrations really becomes dangerous is in the arena of foreign policy. And here the messages of the two administrations are in direct conflict. That certainly does not inspire confidence among our allies. Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson, essentially the foreign policy team of the Pence administration, were in Europe last week, trying to calm our allies down about Trump/Bannon's threat to substantially weaken NATO and the European Union. But, just days before Pence and company left for Europe, Bannon again reiterated his desire to see the EU break apart while speaking to the German Ambassador. According to CNN, "Bannon told Peter Witting, the German ambassador to the US, that the Trump administration wants to strengthen bilateral ties with individual European countries rather than deal with the entire bloc, the sources said. In what was described as a 'combative' conversation, the sources said Bannon spelled out a nationalist world view and cited a wave of anti-EU populism as evidence of the bloc's flaws." The NY Times today has an article describing the similar problem that Mexico is having trying to determine what exactly is the policy of the US. The headline alone tells the story, "As Kelly and Tillerson Visit Mexico, Their Reassurances Differ From Trump’s Stance".

When push comes to shove, these foreign governments are more likely to believe the words of the Trump/Bannon administration rather than the Pence administration, because, after all, that is where the power really lies. And the potential blowback for the US could be powerful. If the US does abandon NATO, it would probably pull the remaining Western Alliance nations even closer together as they fear Putin and Russia trying to extend their influence back into Europe. The US would lose important allies in the whatever military adventures Trump/Bannon would want to engage in. It would extend the influence of China as the EU would look to that country as an important trading partner in order to "replace" the US, whom the EU could no longer trust.

Mexico actually presents even more challenges. We need their cooperation on immigration and the drug trade and the country is a critical component in the supply chains of many US companies. As the Times article points out, Mexico is an enormous purchaser of US agricultural products. The country is "the No. 1 purchaser of American corn, dairy, pork and rice. Mexico purchased nearly $2 billion of corn in 2016 and also bought large amounts of soybeans, wheat, cotton and beef. A Mexican lawmaker recently proposed a bill to redirect purchases of corn away from the United States, a tactic that could devastate American corn farmers in the heartland of Mr. Trump’s base. Both Brazil and Argentina offer alternatives to the American Corn Belt, experts and officials say." If Mexico decides that the US relationship is that unstable and unfriendly, they are in a position to devastate the agriculture industry in the US. As the Mexican lawmaker's bill indicates, the Mexican public is already pressuring the Mexican government to take a stronger stand against the Trump/Bannon's economic nationalism. The Pence administration, on the other hand, has no interest in pursuing these battles.

There is a reason that Lawrence O'Donnell calls Pence the greatest threat to Donald Trump. Pence is the guy that the GOP Congress would find far easier to work with than Trump. Pence is the guy whose interests align almost seamlessly with the Republicans in Congress. Pence will not create these needless missteps and distractions that only end up delaying the GOP Congress from the tax cuts and regulation rollbacks it is really interested in. But Trump still holds enough power over the rank and file Republican voters and that is what keeps the Trump/Bannon administration in place. The GOP Congress is not yet ready to confront Trump. The Pence administration will, of course, do its best to convert Trump over to its views and they may very well succeed. But if they can't, it won't be long before Republicans in Congress decide to get rid of Mr. Hyde and give all the power to Dr. Jekyll.

Steve Bannon's Vision Of An Imperial Presidency Positions Us For War

Steve Bannon was at CPAC yesterday where he was interviewed along with Reince Priebus. As usual with Bannon, he had a number of provocative things to say, some that were scarier than others. But the vision that Bannon laid out would essentially concentrate even more power in the President, not just the executive branch. And it begins the preparation for the war that he envisions in the near future.

Bannon laid out three essential elements for his vision for the Trump/Bannon administration - national sovereignty and defense, economic nationalism, and the destruction of the regulatory state. He puts it this way, "I kind of break it up into three verticals of three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty and that's your intelligence, the Defense Department, Homeland Security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism and that is Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, Lighthizer at -- at Trade, Peter Navarro, Stephen Miller, these people that are rethinking how we're gonna reconstruct the -- our trade arrangements around the world. The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state."

All of these three elements are within the purview of Presidential power and the Trump/Bannon administration will attempt to push the limits of Presidential power in each of these areas. With regards to national defense and sovereignty, we have already seen how Trump' Muslim ban attempted to include green card holders who have every legal right to move in and out of the United States. The plan for mass deportations is part of that plan as well. There will be increases in the defense budget and, in the last few days, rumors of putting troops on the ground in Syria.

His plan for economic nationalism explicitly intends to, as he says, "reconstruct our trade agreements around the world". Breaking existing treaties will be somewhat difficult and potentially require extensive negotiations. Crafting new trade deals is significantly easier and Trump/Bannon seem to be particularly focused on bilateral ones. Says Bannon, "People are starting to think through a whole raft of amazing and innovative, bilateral relationships -- bilateral trading relationships with people that will reposition America in the world as a -- as a fair trading nation and start to bring jobs." Bannon envisions breaking up the EU and engaging in bilateral trade deals with only the countries that share his white nationalist views. Obviously, the US will have an upper hand in any trade deal negotiated with just one other country. And the details of that trade deal will be negotiated in the executive branch, probably with just a handful of trusted White House advisers and cabinet members. The negotiated deal will then be presented to Congress as a fait-accompli to simply ratify. On the other hand, it is hard to see why other nations would willingly engage in deals that would be so one-sided for the US, but Bannon seems to think it is possible.

Bannon believes we will need to fight a global war, probably against China and Iran, in the near future and we might as well do it sooner rather than later while we have the military advantage. In a speech in 2014 he said, "There is a major war brewing, a war that is already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act." But Bannon is also a student of conservative history and he very well knows the writings of the Austrian Ludwig von Mises. In one of his most famous books, "Human Action", von Mises has this to say, "Economic nationalism is incompatible with durable peace. Yet economic nationalism is unavoidable where there is government interference with business...It is an illusion to believe that a nation would lastingly tolerate other nations' policies which harm the vital interest of its own citizens." To use a phrase from the Mises Institute, "economic nationalism is a philosophy of war." This, in a nutshell, seems to summarize Bannon's world view.

Which brings us to his third element - "the deconstruction of the administrative state". Under our Constitution, the President is the head of the executive branch that "fully and faithfully executes" the laws of the land. The administrative state that Bannon wants to deconstruct is largely there to help and ensure that the President can do that. Federal agencies are how executive power gets implemented. By eliminating the devolved power in those agencies, more power will accrue to the President and his close advisers. It seems that Bannon's view is that a handful of people will be able to fully manage the full power of the US government. The reality, of course, is that, as the power of those agencies is restricted, so is the ability of the executive branch to execute and enforce the laws. We can only imagine the abuses of environmental and labor laws that will occur. Power of enforcement will almost by definition devolve down to state and local authorities, especially law enforcement, and, eventually, to the courts. And in the courts, conservatives still have a stronghold that will only grow with further Trump appointments, even as Trump/Bannon have shown some inclination to defy court rulings. The power of the police state will also increase, as we see with the recruitment of state and local police forces into immigration enforcement and the threats to call out the National Guard to patrol certain cities. All this, of course, will fulfill the Republicans' 70 year old dream of states' rights and local control, while, ironically, at the same time concentrating more power in the President.

Bannon has rightly received criticism for his remarks about how "things will only get worse" for the "corporatist, globalist media". But it was what he said about the three pillars of the Trump/Bannon administration that should really frighten us. National sovereignty will eliminate any possible enemies within our country, meaning immigrants and Muslims. The destruction of the administrative state will put more power in the hands of the President. Economic nationalism will simply be the opening battle without weapons. Bannon's vision truly is a vision for war.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Paul Manafort, Trump's Campaign Chair, Was Being Extorted By Ukrainian

Maybe I'm just na├»ve but I think it would have been nice to know that Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman before his Russian connections were exposed, was also being blackmailed by a Ukrainian anti-corruption crusader. And, in fact, it was that Ukrainian's release of a ledger showing off-the-books payments to Manafort that ultimately forced him to resign.

This information comes from a hack of Manafort's daughter's phone to which Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, sent a number of text messages threatening to expose Manafort unless they could reach an "agreement". One text message says, "Considering all the facts and evidence that are in my possession, and before possible decision whether to pass this to [the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine] or FBI I would like to get your opinion on this and maybe your way to work things out that will persuade me to do otherwise." Leshchenko also mentions a 2012 meeting between an ally of former Ukrainian president and Russian favorite Viktor Yanukovych and Trump and Manafort.

Manafort denies that meeting ever took place. Manafort also claims that he did not respond to the texts, which he admits are authentic, and has denied the receipt of any off-the-books money. Additionally, Manafort admits to getting similar texts from someone appearing to be Leshchenko directly to his phone. Interestingly, it does not appear that Manafort reported these pretty clear extortion attempts to the US law enforcement. US intelligence agencies as well as the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are looking into the Trump campaign's contacts with the Russians. Those investigations include Manafort.

I'm so glad that James Comey could spend all those resources focused on Hillary's emails while the Trump campaign chairman is being extorted by a foreign power and there was clear evidence the Russians were tying to influence the election.

Arizona Law Would Preempt Public Protests

I have written many times already that Republicans, in many ways, have given up on democracy. And sometimes you really have to wonder if they even know or understand the Constitution. In Arizona, the State Senate approved a bill that would extend the current racketeering laws to cover people who organize or engage in public protests.

If made law, it would mean that organizers and participants in a public protest that results in a riot could be prosecuted for criminal racketeering. The organizers could be liable even if they were not even physically at the protest. In addition, the bill allows for persons charged under this law to have their assets seized. Organizers and protesters could be arrested simply if law enforcement feels a riot might break out, either while the protest was occurring or even before it had begun. Organizers and protesters would also be subject to arrest even if it was proven that an opposition group started the riot.

Of course, many people have different idea about what constitutes a riot, which will allow this law to be horribly abused. And the preemptive arrests are even more frightening. The effects on free speech and free assembly are simply chilling. What organization can potentially expose itself to bankruptcy through asset forfeiture by organizing a protest. What individuals can afford to expose themselves to bankruptcy be participating in a protest.

Of course, if this bill passes the Arizona House and gets signed into law, the court cases will begin. The Republicans who pushed this bill through on  party line vote believe this bill is necessary to crack down on all those professional provocateurs that are seemingly showing up all over the country. Most people know them as concerned citizens.

When you see a bill like this that has the ability to crush peaceful protest as effectively as Putin's Russia as well as ICE agents going into a hospital to detain an undocumented immigrant who is there for cancer treatment or people getting off a plane from San Francisco to JFK not being allowed to debark without "showing their papers", you really have to wonder what country we are living in these days. There is more than a hint of fascism in the air. It is becoming a reality on the ground.

I've Got Good News And Bad News

I've got good news and I've got bad news. Which do you want to hear first? Well, I always want to hear the bad news first. So here goes.

First, Martin Longman over at Washington Monthly makes the case that resistance is, in the end futile. According to Longman, " I don’t think it’s really possible to rattle the Republican majorities because they are too ensconced in power to have a need to worry about accountability. Maybe some congresspeople are avoiding town halls that are guaranteed to do them more harm than good, but that doesn’t mean that more than a handful of them are actually more worried about getting beaten by Democrats than by primary challengers from their right." In fact, the best thing the resistance has going for it is the basic incompetence and disorganization of the Trump administration, with a little help from Democratic obstruction in the Senate. A more prepared and normal administration were already be pushing through major pieces of legislation. But Longman sees this as purely temporary, saying, "They will start to figure these things out. They’ll get their people in place. And they’ll begin to really hammer and disempower their political enemies."

When you look at what happened at the Dakota Access Pipeline or how Trump's staggeringly poor nominees get confirmed on party line votes, it is hard not to agree with Longman's point. But rebuilding the Democratic party on a local level takes the kind of resistance and engagement we have recently seen. It's just that the rebuilding process will take years and Trump and the GOP Congress can do their worst now.

Then, today, a Washington Post opinion piece by Greg Sargent makes a similar point, arguing that Trump will cave to the GOP Congress and pass wide-ranging cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for future recipients under the guise of "saving" those programs, using virtually the same language to first destroy the ACA. In addition, the GOP Congress will get the massive tax cuts it so desires for their rich and corporate overlords.

It's all pretty depressing. On the other hand, the good news is these guys could be entirely wrong. Last night, I went to a town hall put on by the Representative Jim Himes. And he was actually pretty sanguine about the prospect that Republicans themselves will not be able to agree on a way forward. He did not think that the ACA would be repealed or even replaced with the usual bogus GOP plan that would cover less people and offer junk policies. He did not think they would end up touching Social Security and Medicare. He was more concerned about their efforts to turn Medicaid into a block grant. And he believed the massive resistance the GOP Senators and Representatives were seeing this week would make it even more difficult for them to attack these plans. He even believed that Republican infighting might possibly sink their push for tax reform. I left the meeting feeling that perhaps we could stem the tide.

Interestingly, in a move of ultimate hypocrisy, the Trump administration and the GOP in Congress have asked a court to delay a lawsuit that would have eliminated the subsidies paid to health insurance companies in order to help them offset the costs associated with low income enrollees. Without those subsidies, insurance companies will probably leave the exchanges in droves. The case was originally brought by House Republicans back in 2014 and won the initial round but the Obama administration appealed that ruling. Now that Republicans are in full control and responsible for health care for over 20 million people, they are actually backing away from their own suit. If the GOP was really interested in seeing Obamacare collapse, they would have dropped this appeal and destroyed the exchange insurance market for 2018.

And, today, I see that Senator Murkowski of Alaska has said she would vote against repealing the Medicaid expansion. Incredibly, Governor Brownback, who has refused Medicaid expansion for his home state of Kansas, told CPAC that the GOP needs to find a way "for people to stay on the Medicaid expansion." Former Speaker John Boehner told a health conference today that not only would Republicans not be able repeal and replace Obamacare but that the number of people covered by Medicaid would probably not be reduced either. Of course, none of what those three say about Medicaid would stop them from agreeing to block grant the program.

On the tax front, Steve Mnuchin said today he would hope to have major tax reform passed by August. But, importantly, he did not indicate that the White House was anywhere near a plan that they would propose and seemed to indicate the bill would really be crafted in Congress. If Himes is correct, that makes its passage by August less likely.

Since I'm a cynical optimist at heart, I prefer to ignore Sargent and Longman on this one and put my hope in what Himes has to say. It is clear that the GOP is now focused on turning Medicaid into a block grant and our efforts at resistance need to focus accordingly. In addition, Democrats need to continue to slow-walk everything that happens in the Senate. To use a sports analogy, we need to run out the clock until halftime, which is 2018, so that we can regroup. There will be plenty of battles ahead but relentless resistance is our only option.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Trump Plans Mass Deportations

The latest memos coming out of the Department of Homeland Security regarding the immigration crackdown are frightening in their scope. With the exception of those previously protected under DACA, virtually every undocumented immigrant is now subject to deportation.

DHS plans to hire an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents, another 10,000 ICE agents, and build additional detention centers as well as to begin planning the border wall. The money to fund these actions will require Congressional approval. In addition, the DHS is also now authorized to make agreements with state and local law enforcement to essentially deputize those officers into performing the duties of immigration authorities. Previous experiences using regular police as immigration agents have shown it leads to racial profiling

While saying that it will still be focused on deporting criminals, the fact is that DHS has even expanded the meaning of that term. Traffic tickets, parking violations, and even just being charged with a crime but not yet convicted would subject an undocumented immigrant to deportation. And technically, there is nothing in the order that would prevent the deportation of any undocumented immigrant who has never been involved with the law at all.

More disturbingly, DHS is now going to expand the "expedited removal" program that bypasses the usual court proceedings for deportation. That program was limited to immigrants found within 100 miles of the border who could not prove they had been here more than 14 days. Under the new rule, the program will apply countrywide and immigrants will have to prove they have been in the country more than 2 years in order to receive due process.

In an Orwellian twist, one of the reasons for expanding the expedited removal process is because there is already a backlog of around 500,000 cases in the courts. DHS describes this situation as untenable and its solution is to bypass immigration courts entirely. Essentially they are saying, we won't fund the immigration court system to work effectively so we can't let you have access to the immigration court system. Orwell would be proud.

Also in the new rule is the removal of privacy protections for all non-citizens or green card holders. The previous policy offered some protections of the Privacy Act. Those protections are now gone. In addition, DHS has set up a propaganda outfit to document the number of victims of crime by undocumented immigrants.

Parents who are here already and try to reunite with their children by sneaking them into the country could face deportation or human trafficking prosecution. Also included in the rule is a plan to send Central American refugees back to Mexico, rather than their home country as has been the practice for decades. This would probably violate international law as well as require approval from Mexico, which is not likely to happen.

The expansion of the expedited removal program is ripe for abuse. ICE agents have already shown a penchant for fabricating evidence and ignoring the rule of law. There were clear indications that ICE was continuing to enforce the Muslim ban for many hours after the courts applied a restraining order on that ban. And a case in Seattle also showed that ICE most probably doctored a detainee's statement in order to try to show he was a gang member. For those that are undocumented, I would imagine it would be pretty hard to prove that you were in the country for more than the two years required, especially when the only judge who will decide that is an ICE agent.

This new rules will only lead undocumented immigrants even further into the shadows and create even more fear and tension in those communities with local law enforcement. It will destroy families and disrupt businesses. And it will all be to please Trump's alt-right base.

Lastly, it will become more and more important for these undocumented immigrants to know the limited rights they have. This will become harder and harder as they go further underground. But it is important to know that ICE can not enter your residence without a warrant. It is ICE policy to knock on doors and say they are the police investigating a crime and ask to come in. Since most police forces are not interested in immigration status, undocumenteds have gotten in the habit of cooperating with local police. That must end. If you are an illegal immigrant, never let any law enforcement officer into your home without a warrant.  And this is another example of how Trump's mass deportation will actually make local law enforcements' job even harder.

Last Camp Of DAPL Protesters Closes; New Battles Await Native Americans

Some time later this afternoon, the physical protests against Dakota Access Pipeline will essentially end as the last of the Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin pack up and leave. The battle will, of course continue in other venues such as the courts. The Standing Rock Sioux had encouraged protesters to leave back in January as they were concerned about their ability to endure the harsh North Dakota winter. They continued to discourage protesters from returning even after the Trump administration and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) reversed what Obama had decided in December and allowed the pipeline to continue.

In a cruel irony, ACE and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum ordered the last protesters to leave because of health and safety risks. As the snow melts, the protest area could be susceptible to flooding that would contaminate nearby rivers with waste from the camp. In essence, the Water Protectors are being forced to leave in order to protect the waters. It is yet another kind of Catch-22 similar to ones that Native Americans have endured in this country ever since its founding.

The Standing Rock Sioux will continue their battle in the courts. Last week the tribe, in conjunction with the Cheyenne River Sioux, filed a motion to stop the pipeline in a Washington, DC federal court, focusing on the violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty and refusal of the ACE to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement on the potential effects on the tribal watershed.

The battle also continues in other venues, especially by pressuring those banks that are bankrolling DAPL. CalPERS, the enormous California public employees pension fund, recently put out a statement asking the banks investing in DAPL to have the pipeline rerouted around tribal lands. The statement cited the concern "that if DAPL’s projected route moves forward, the result will almost certainly be an escalation of conflict and unrest as well as possible contamination of the water supply." Over 120 other major investors joined with CalPERS in that statement, including New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer who represents multiple New York City pension funds. CalPERS itself is under enormous pressure to divest from Energy Transfer Partners, the owner of DAPL, as well as Wells Fargo, a major backer of DAPL and a serial criminal bank.

While the fight against DAPL concerns oil and gas being piped through tribal lands, what is actually under those lands may create an even bigger battle. According to a recent Reuters story, "Native American reservations cover just 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves...The Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribal energy consortium, estimated in 2009 that Indian energy resources are worth about $1.5 trillion. In 2008, the Bureau of Indian Affairs testified before Congress that reservations contained about 20 percent of untapped oil and gas reserves in the U.S."

Native American tribes do not "own" the reservation land. They have a right to live there but have no right to sell that land to non-Native Americans. There is no private ownership. The tribes have the right to extract resources such as oil and gas from their land but under much more stringent regulations than covers privately held land. According to one tribal leader, "The time it takes to go from lease to production is three times longer on trust lands than on private land."

The Trump transition team commissioned a 27-member Native American Affairs Coalition that was largely made up Native American leaders who favored drilling and mining on reservation land. This group floated a proposal that would essentially privatize Native American land. The tribes would own that land and be free to do what they please with it, perhaps with the restriction on selling the land to non-Native Americans still in place. This would make it far easier for tribes to exploit the vast wealth that lies in their land, albeit with the help of private US companies. Several tribes already finance education, health, and other projects on their reservations through drilling and mining leases. This would simply speed up that process and make it easier.

Privatizing is a dangerous word when discussing Native American affairs. It represents a federal grab of tribal land, dispossession, and loss of culture and conjours up images of the Dawes Act in the late 1800s or the "termination" policy of the 1950s which simply removed lands from tribal control. In typical Trumpian fashion, this proposal, if adopted, would be described as eliminating wasteful regulation and allowing Native Americans to more easily exploit the resources on the lands they control. What would be unspoken is that this would also provide an excuse for the government to then reduce its nearly $20 billion in federal support for Native American tribes.

The reality is that the proposal would pit those who wished to exploit the land to further benefit the tribes against those who believe that this kind of privatization will further erode Native American culture and threaten Native American sovereignty. In addition, it could conceivably pit the resource-rich tribes against those less fortunate. In the cruelest way possible, this proposal would create a battle among Native Americans that, in large part, would ending up providing the greatest benefit to non-Native American companies and citizens. In so many ways, it would just represent a sad continuation of the last 240 years.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Another Op-Ed Says The Path Back For Dems Goes Through The South And Southwest

Steve Phillips has an op-ed in the NY Times today that again makes the point that Democrats do not need to go on an "ill-fated quest" to win over the disgruntled white working class in the Midwest. Rather, the party should continue its move to the left and focus its efforts "on the ample opportunities in the Southwest and the South".

In a shameless plug, I will say that this nicely dovetails with a post that I put up last week that made a similar point. Phillips points out that the reason for Hillary Clinton's loss in the last election was not so much because Obama voters flipped to Trump but that Obama voters went to a third party, either Johnson or Stein. According to Phillips, "That is the white flight that should most concern the next D.N.C. chairman, because those voters make up a more promising way to reclaim the White House. The way to win them back is by being more progressive, not less."

In Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump only added about 175,000 votes to Mitt Romney's total. But the third party candidates added around 300,000 votes in those two states, compared to the just under 400,000 fewer votes that Hillary received as compared to Obama. The problem was not so much that Hillary lost votes to Trump; it was that Hillary lost votes to Stein and Johnson. That problem will not be fixed by becoming Republican-lite.

Phillips additionally points out that the minority share of the electorate is growing while the white share shrinks, saying, "Nearly half of all Democratic votes (46 percent) were not white in 2016, and over the next four years, 10 million more people of color will be added to the population, as compared with just 1.5 million whites." He summarizes, "The path to victory involves reinspiring those whites who drifted to third-party candidates and then focusing on the ample opportunities in the Southwest and the South. Mrs. Clinton came closer to winning Texas than she did Iowa. She fared better in Arizona, Georgia and Florida than she did in the traditional battleground state of Ohio. The electoral action for Democrats may have once been in the Rust Belt, but it’s now moving west and south."

Matt Yglesias has a pinned post on twitter that says, "Trump got 46% of the vote -- a smaller share than Romney -- it's not literally necessary to convert any of those voters to win." That is entirely true. It would be helpful to bring back those Democratic voters who defected to third parties. But more importantly, Democrats need to focus on states like Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina, states that are growing in total population and in minority population. That is the real path to a Democratic resurgence.

Trump's Policies Will Actually Hurt Employment

Donald Trump has promised to bring back all those coal and manufacturing jobs. It's not going to happen, despite what his supporters may choose to believe. In fact, his policies will actual probably hinder job growth, especially since it looks like the US is already near what the Fed calls "full employment".

You wouldn't think that the Muslim ban would have an effect on US job growth, but it probably will have a real negative effect. The Boston Globe is reporting that the tourist industry is already seeing a significant drop-off in booking searches. One research site said that international flight searches to the US had fallen nearly 7% since Trump announced his Muslim ban. Particular distressing was Trump's alienation of China and Mexico, as those two countries represent a large number of visitors to the US. It is hard to believe, but the number of international tourists to the US just reached pre-9/11 levels only last year. According to David Scowsill, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, "The US is in danger of taking the same path it took after Sept. 11, which led to a decade of economic stagnation in the travel and tourism sector. Strict visa policies and inward-looking sentiment led to a $600 billion loss in tourism revenues in the decade post 9/11."

The Muslim ban will also reduce the incentives for foreign students to come study and potentially live here. That will be an immediate hit for some universities and graduate schools and a real loss for the future growth and productivity of the US economy.

In addition, Trump's immigration policies will also end up being a drag on GDP. Calculated Risk highlights a study from Goldman Sachs shows that net immigration accounts for between 40% and 50% of the  recent population growth in the US. These immigrants tend to be younger and more likely to enter the labor force. A smaller work force will then mean a weaker GDP and potentially lower productivity. As the study notes, "Reduced immigration would result in slower labor force growth and therefore slower growth in potential GDP—the economy’s 'speed limit'. In addition, academic studies suggest there could be negative knock-on effects on productivity growth. As a result, we see immigration restrictions as an important source of downside risk to our 1.75% estimate of potential growth." In addition, mass deportations of millions of immigrants will create disruption in many other industries. I have already written about the concerns of the farmers in California and their worry that they will not be able to find workers to pick and pack their crops.

Trump's roll back of regulations will not create any significant number of jobs either, despite the propaganda that resonates in the right wing echo chamber. His roll back of the stream protection rule will maybe save around 70 coal jobs, despite supporters' belief that Trump had saved 70,000 jobs with the stroke of his pen. "If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work," Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. "I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything — you could see how happy they were." Not really. Natural gas, solar, and wind are all cheaper alternatives to coal and that is not likely to change any time in the near future. This will lead to further declines in employment in the coal industry. And any growth in the industry will probably come out West in Wyoming, where it is cheaper to extract coal, rather than Appalachia.

In the oil industry, a New York Times story the other day illustrates how automation is eliminating jobs even in the oil industry. Since 2014, the oil industry has lost 163,000 jobs but those jobs are returning as the price of oil rises. However, it is estimated that a third to one half of those jobs will not come back because they have been automated. In Texas, a drilling firm has added 240 wells without adding a single worker. Said one oil worker, "I don’t see a future. Pretty soon every rig will have one worker and a robot."

Trump's supporters may believe that he will bring manufacturing and coal jobs back, but it's not going to happen. They will deny that reality for a time, but it will eventually sink in. And Trump's policies on immigration and travel will actually only make the employment situation worse.

A Theory That The Trump-Sater-FBI Connection Explains More Than The Russian Connection

Ok, I'm just going to throw this one out there. I have no credible sourcing for what I'm about to say. I'm just trying to make sense of what we apparently learned in the last couple of days about the nexus of Trump, Felix Sater, and the CIA and the FBI.

The reports from the New York Times and the Washington Post show that a Russian-backed Ukrainian politician and Sater used Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, to pass on to the Trump administration a reported "peace plan" for Ukraine and Russia that would essentially have the Russians pull out of eastern Ukraine. In return, Ukrainians would agree to lease Crimea back to the Russians for 50 or 100 years. I wouldn't doubt that an easing of sanctions is also mentioned as well.

Felix Sater has his own sordid history that includes securities fraud in coordination with the NYC mafia and assault. But Sater managed to duck responsibility for his securities fraud conviction by becoming some kind of informant or operative for the CIA and/or the FBI, buying weapons on the black market in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shortly after he started working for the intelligence agencies, in 2003, Sater also managed to land a job with Bayrock Securities, originally founded by a Kazhak businessman who was clearly funded by Russian oligarch money, and quickly becoming a managing partner and then COO of the company. Shortly after becoming COO, Bayrock financed the Trump Soho project that was another one of Trump's disasters that ended up, as usual, with the buyers of condos in the building suing Trump for fraud and winning a recovery of 90%. Sater was also listed as a senior adviser to the Trump Organization in 2010, a gig that ended when his criminal past was revealed during the Trump Soho lawsuit. Trump himself has admitted to knowing and working with Sater since the "early 2000s".

This is at least what we seem to know factually about Sater. And here is where I go off into total speculation and "conspiracy theory". One of the most interesting questions about the prior election campaign is what prompted James Comey and the FBI to intervene so blatantly and heavy-handedly. Yes, he may be a partisan hack but it is hard to see why he would put his job on the line simply to block Hillary Clinton from becoming president. If anything, Hillary was a pretty mainstream candidate who was seen as a foreign policy hawk. In addition, there was clearly a cabal in the FBI's New York field office that was also rabidly anti-Hillary, again for no apparent reason.

One theory that answers that question in a rather satisfactory way is that Trump, through his association with Felix Sater and/or his own connections, knows something about an FBI operation that would be incredibly damaging to the bureau were it to become public. Remember, Sater was an intelligence operative in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the FBI and the CIA were virtually given a free hand. Bush and Cheney were willing to look the other at whatever the intelligence agencies did at that time, even if it was in clear violation of US or international law. Sater was a convicted fraudster with connections to the old Soviet Union. Trump was a failed building magnate with lots of knowledge about New York real estate and the mob. Sater, and potentially Trump himself, were probably supplying information and running operations under the direction of the New York field office of the FBI. It would make perfect sense to put these two together to create a situation where the rich and powerful in the remnants of the Soviet Union could launder their ill-gotten gains into dollars by having them invest in New York real estate. And the US intelligence agencies would get something in return.

In the wake of 9/11, the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan became a critical focus of the Bush administration. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan became singularly important because of their proximity to Afghanistan and their apparent willingness to deal. By the end of 2011, just 3 months after 9/11, the US had signed agreements with both countries that allowed for the stationing of US support and combat troops in those countries. All these countries were clearly in what Russia had always deemed its sphere of influence. Convincing these countries to quickly allow US troops to station there while at the same time appeasing Russia probably took considerable diplomatic and presumably economic and/or monetary effort. It was into this mix that the FBI or CIA apparently sent Sater, while at the same time setting him up with Trump.

For Trump, the access to foreign money was a godsend. As COO of Bayrock, Sater could tap his connections in Russia and the republics to finance Trump, who was a black hole to legitimate Wall Street banks at that time. In fact, it must have been clear to the FBI and CIA that Bayrock was clearly a tool for Russian and old Soviet money to "invest" in legitimate projects, essentially lauder their rubles. So Sater actually becomes the perfect nexus between Trump, the FBI, and the Russian oligarchs.

In addition, it is probably no coincidence that Trump got into the world of big-time New York real estate and even the casino business around the same time that Rudy Giuliani was destroying the New York mafia as US Attorney. If there were ever two industries in the New York City are that were definitely mob-controlled, it would have been the building industry and, of course, illegal and then legal gambling.  Trump would have been instrumental to the FBI with his knowledge of the various mob-related groups involved in both his businesses. Sater also would have been a valuable FBI resource due to his connections with the Genovese and Colombo crime families whom he worked with in perpetuating his securities fraud. Together, they made a nice combination. But, even before Sater, Trump probably had a long association with the FBI, especially the agents in New York.

That long association would also explain why Trump seems to have gotten away with so much fraud and criminality over the years without ever really paying a price for it. Essentially, Trump has been either using his FBI connections or, worse, blackmailing the FBI for years, especially the New York office. This would also explain Rudy Giuliani's insane support for Trump as well.

Trump's fondness for Putin may have less to do with what Russia has on him and more to do with the fact that he has been dealing with the oligarchs for the last decade and a half. In his warped and narcissistic mind, he would be a great president if he could do a deal where Russia and the US ended 75 years of hostility. And Trump is guy who only knows how to make deals and has been making deals with guys like Putin for years. Of course, the fact that this fits perfectly into Bannon's vision of confrontation with Iran and China and his belief is white nationalism is an added bonus.

Looking at the egregious and unprecedented interference of the FBI in the election can reasonably be explained by a powerful desire to protect the bureau. That could either be because Slater and Trump know of an operation that is a serious breach of US law or because they know of FBI/CIA sources inside Russia and the old Soviet Republics. This would also explain the FBI's unwillingness to investigate Trump's Russian connections and even put out statements that would inoculate him from rumors of those connections during the campaign. It can also explain the apparent unwillingness of certain members of Congress to fully investigate Trump and perhaps why his tax returns have managed to not leak yet. It could explain why Trump has managed to get away with so much fraud and criminality over the years without really getting punished. For years, he's had some get-out-of-jail card.

And this unfounded theory about the only thing that adequately explains the enormous risks that Comey and the FBI took during the election in an effort to help elect a guy who, at first blush, would seem the most unlikely of candidates for the FBI to openly back in probably the most egregious example of domestic intelligence interfering in a US election in our history.

I know this is a far-fetched theory. I know it's sounds crazy. But it does explain some of the inexplicable actions of the FBI. I have no proof. I have no backup. I have nothing. Simply food for thought.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Uber's Rampant Sexism And Misogyny

I see my favorite company is in the news again this weekend, this time for treating its actual employees as badly as it treats its "contractors". Susan Fowler has written a piece on her one-year stint at Uber and the details are shocking yet unsurprising for a company that feels it is not constrained by any laws.

Fowler was an engineer hired by Uber in November of 2015. After a few weeks of initial training, Fowler eventually joined the Uber team in her area of expertise. On her very first day at that position, Fowler was essentially propositioned by her manager. Says Fowler, "On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn't. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR."

Fowler assumed that, since Uber was a fairly large company, it would have a normal HR department. But this is Uber. Fowler continues, "When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he 'was a high performer' (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part."

Even worse, Fowler was told that she could either stay in that group and, as the HR department admitted, get a poor review, or transfer to another team within Uber. In an additional slap in the face, HR advised her that the poor review would not be considered retaliation because she would have opted to stay on that team. Fowler again, "I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that. I remarked that this didn't seem like much of a choice, and that I wanted to stay on the team because I had significant expertise in the exact project that the team was struggling to complete (it was genuinely in the company's best interest to have me on that team), but they told me the same thing again and again. One HR rep even explicitly told me that it wouldn't be retaliation if I received a negative review later because I had been 'given an option'."

Needless to say, Fowler left that team and joined another where she could work fairly autonomously. And she succeeded in that position. But her interactions with other female engineers at Uber led her to discover that her harasser had engaged in similar inappropriate behavior with others many times. Uber management and HR had blatantly lied about her incident being his first offense. Fowler explains, "Myself and a few of the women who had reported him in the past decided to all schedule meetings with HR to insist that something be done. In my meeting, the rep I spoke with told me that he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offense (in his chats with me), and that none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him, so no further action could or would be taken. It was such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do. There was nothing any of us could do."

Fowler describes in another anecdote just how poorly the women engineers at Uber were treated. The company promised leather jackets for Fowler's entire engineering group. The company brought in all the engineers to get fitted and choose the jackets they would want. Subsequently, the six female engineers received an email from management telling them that they would not be getting their leather jackets because it was not worth it for just six jackets. According to Fowler, "I replied and said that I was sure Uber SRE could find room in their budget to buy leather jackets for the, what, six women if it could afford to buy them for over a hundred and twenty men. The director replied back, saying that if we women really wanted equality, then we should realize we were getting equality by not getting the leather jackets. He said that because there were so many men in the org, they had gotten a significant discount on the men's jackets but not on the women's jackets, and it wouldn't be equal or fair, he argued, to give the women leather jackets that cost a little more than the men's jackets. We were told that if we wanted leather jackets, we women needed to find jackets that were the same price as the bulk-order price of the men's jackets." The pettiness is truly shocking.

The last straw for Fowler came when more of her complaints to HR were met with outright and easily provable falsehoods. That led to a one-on-one meeting with her manager. Fowler again, "He told me I was on very thin ice for reporting his manager to HR. California is an at-will employment state, he said, which means we can fire you if you ever do this again. I told him that was illegal, and he replied that he had been a manager for a long time, he knew what was illegal, and threatening to fire me for reporting things to HR was not illegal. I reported his threat immediately after the meeting to both HR and to the CTO: they both admitted that this was illegal, but none of them did anything. (I was told much later that they didn't do anything because the manager who threatened me 'was a high performer')."

She thankfully left Uber in December, 2016, having been there just over one year. It is hard to imagine all that she endured only occurred in the course of 13 months. Please read her whole piece. It is shocking and disgusting but probably far more typical than one imagines in corporate America today. It is, most certainly, typical of Uber's unethical and lawless behavior in every way.

In many ways, the sexism and misogyny on display in Uber is reflected in our wider society. There is no doubt that it was a significant factor in Hillary Clinton's defeat. And those destructive attitudes will never be erased or even minimized if they are normalized in our corporate culture. What Fowler was forced to endure at Uber, a large multinational American based company, shows just how far we still have to go.

Natural Weekends - The Robins Appear

Well this glorious weekend of 60 degree weather has brought the birds out all along the creek and even the robins, the first real sign of spring, have shown up. Everyone was out soaking up the warming sun all weekend long.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Trump Is Weak And Democrats Need To Say So

I'd like to call attention to a piece by John Stoehr over at the Washington Monthly that focuses of the importance for Democrats in characterizing Trump as weak. This is kind of the flip side of a theme that Josh Marshall had about Trump during the campaign which said that a large part of Trump's popularity was driven by his mastery of "dominance politics". The whole point of viciously and falsely attacking the media is primarily to show that he is strong. The point of all the lies about his election win is driving home his strength to his core constituency. Stoehr makes this point directly when he says, "It is style’s mastery over substance. Which brings me back to character. That is something people can judge, because they trust their ability to size up the president. That trust, of course, is misplaced, because Trump is in fact a serial liar, but remember, most people, especially Trump supporters, don’t know enough about politics or care enough to know much about politics, so they don’t know he’s lying. What they can see is how he looks. And this is key."

But, as Stoehr goes on to say, Trump is actually weak and to essentially break the fever of Trump supporters requires having him constantly depicted as weak. Democrats need to focus on hammering home that message. And, in fact, there is plenty of fodder for that message because, right now, Trump is incredibly weak.

Anytime Trump can be forced to back down publicly from his lies, he will look weak. That was the beauty of the NBC reporter who confronted Trump on his lie about his electoral college win and forced Trump into full retreat on that point. The fact that he has already caved into China on the "one China" policy shows that Trump is weak. The fact that the courts made him, temporarily, retreat on his Muslim ban shows Trump is weak. The fact that one national security adviser has resigned and two others have turned down the job shows that Trump is weak. The fact that his nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of Labor and now, possibly, Secretary of the Navy have withdrawn from consideration show that Trump is weak. The fact that he hasn't even put up names for hundreds of sub-cabinet level positions that require Senate confirmation shows that Trump is weak. The fact that his approval ratings are at historic lows for any president this early in his term shows that Trump is weak. The fact that, one month in to his presidency, Trump feels the need to go out and rally his base shows that Trump is weak. And we should hear that message every day from Democrats.

I keep on hearing some pundits say that Trump is a master retail politician who can always energize his base and that base is what led him, and will lead him, to electoral victory. The campaign rally in Florida yesterday was just another way for Trump to flex his political muscle. And, as I've written, it is a show of strength to bring out his base that is designed to keep the Republicans in Congress on board. But it is a show of strength born out of weakness, kind of like the old Soviet Union's May Day parades.

The punditocracy, having written Trump off so many times yet seen him survive and win, has come to believe that he can simply call out to his base and defy political gravity. He can't. Trump won an electoral college victory by running the table in every swing state by the slimmest of margins. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million and won only 46% of the vote. Any reasonable election analysis indicates that he and potentially the down-ballot Republicans could have suffered a massive loss without the efforts of the Russians, the media obsession with Hillary's emails that was largely driven by the expectation she would win, and the critical intervention of James Comey.  Trump is already incredibly unpopular but the intensity of that unpopularity is nearly unheard of, although he still has incredibly strong support among Republicans. But even that may only be so deep. MSNBC had reports over the last two days from areas in the Iowa where they went back and talked to Trump voters. For the most part, those voters still supported Trump but were basically saying "it's only been three weeks, give him some time". That is hardly full-throated support for what he has done.

Campaigning is one thing and governing is entirely another, as we are clearly seeing. Part of Trump's advantage in the last election is that Hillary had to defend her record in government while Trump ran on the myth that he was a successful businessman. Trump supporters may love his Muslim ban and mass deportations and his constantly proclaiming "America First". But his rolling back regulations and negotiating with individual companies will not bring back coal jobs or manufacturing jobs. His 35% tariff will probably never happen and only increase consumer prices if it does go through. The Congressional GOP plans for massive tax cuts for the rich and taking away health insurance are not broadly popular. In two years and in four years, assuming Trump is still president and we have a democracy, he and the Republicans will be having to defend their record. And it will not be a good one. Trump came into office as a weak President and he is not getting any stronger. In fact, his penchant for authoritarianism is, in its own way, a sign of weakness, that he can not survive in a normal democratic process. Rather than overreacting to every Trump lie and provocation specifically, Democrats should be unified in saying Trump only lies and attacks because he is in such a weak position. If Democrats can feed the narrative of his weakness now, it will resonate even more as the years go by. And when his supporters finally see his weakness, he will have started to lose them.

Natural Weekends - Texas Migrations

Today's photos continue this weekend's tour of the Texas Gulf Coast, this time at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas. If you ever get the chance to go there during migration season, make it a point to do so.

And here are two fish doing a little dance: