Saturday, March 4, 2017

Moon Will Occult Aldebaran Tonight

If you are almost anywhere in the continental United States tonight, the moon will occult Aldebaran, the bright star in the constellation Taurus. Here is how to find Aldebaran and the times the occultation will begin as well as the times Aldebaran will reappear on the other side of the moon. Hope to get some video of this tonight but the weather forecast is iffy. One thing I do know it that it will be cold and windy, with wind chills possibly in the single digits...Brrrrr.

Our Allies Start To Abandon Ship

Australia has called back all of its ambassadors as the current government has an all-hands-on-deck meeting to discuss Aussie foreign policy going forward in a different world than existed one year ago.

For Australia, the neighborhood has gotten a lot more dangerous over the last year. It started out with Duterte's election in the Philippines and his seeming preference to cozy up to China and back away from the US. The Chinese creation of military outposts on spits of sand and coral in the South China Sea emerged as another threat. That was compounded by China's refusal to abide by a determination by an international tribunal that China has no claim on those "islands".  The determination of both US presidential candidates to give up on TPP also put Australia in a tough position, simply because that decision ceded leadership on economic issues in the region to China. The final blow was the election of Donald Trump and the isolationism that Trump proposes and represents. That was compounded by Trump's disastrous phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which Trump basically hung up on Turnbull halfway through the call. All this has made it clear to the government that Australia needs to reset its foreign policy to deal with the new world it is facing.

As the piece states, "Australia is not the first longtime U.S. ally to shift foreign policy for or because of the Trump administration. Traditional partners in Europe and Asia have come to similar realizations. They just haven’t called back more than 100 top foreign-policy hands (yet) to try to gin up a solution." It is more than just a shift in foreign policy for our traditional allies. It is the realization that the United States is no longer a reliable partner. And that will make the world a more dangerous place.

Trump Accusation Of Obama Wiretaps To Preemptively Deflect Transcripts Showing Collusion

Well, it certainly looks like Trump's tweetstorm this morning is more than a one-off. The GOP is off and running with the line that the Obama administration's obtaining a wiretap on Trump campaign officials is the real interference in the election. In addition, some GOP talking heads are saying it is unclear whether these wiretaps were authorized or not. I find it beyond belief that Obama would use an unauthorized wiretap and even Fox News is at least reporting the administration asked for a FISA warrant in June and were turned down and then asked again in October.  And now Reuters is reporting that Obama is pushing back, as his spokesman says neither Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. So these wiretaps were clearly done with the proper authority. It is also important to know that Trump claimed that Trump Tower was wiretapped, not Trump himself. Paul Manafort has an office in Trump Tower and is clearly a target in the ongoing investigations. So it is probable that Manafort was the target rather than Trump himself or his operations in Trump Tower.

Yesterday, Chris Coons, Democratic Senator from Delaware was on with Andrea Mitchell and, right at the end of her interview, he specifically made the claim that there are transcripts showing whether or not Trump campaign officials colluded with the Russians during the campaign. Mitchell repeated that claim back to Coons and he confirmed what he said. MSNBC is reporting this again this morning and Coons has apparently not walked it back. Coons sits on the Judiciary Committee but not on the Intelligence Committee. So there is clearly some information floating around that there are transcripts and they possible show some collusion. But, so far, there is nothing to back up that claim.

Putting this all together, it seems likely that there are some incriminating transcripts resulting from the October wiretaps that could be hugely damaging to Trump. And the Trump team now knows that. The spin today on the wiretaps is to try to turn this around and say that it was the Obama administration that was interfering in the election with these wiretaps and not really the Russians. I imagine that Trump will fall back on his old line of saying that his communications with the Russians were all about building a new relationship with them and there is nothing illegal or untoward with that. And that any investigation of those discussion with Russian that occurred during the campaign should be considered interference in the campaign. In the end, it will all depend on how incriminating those transcripts are. But the way that Trump and the GOP are glomming on to the Obama interference line makes it clear that they know there is something bad in those transcripts. and this is their way of trying to deflect their impact and give something to their base to hold on to when the transcripts come out.

Finally, it is important to point out that this is the typical response of an authoritarian regime to any investigation that gets close enough to threaten the regime's legitimacy. The tactic is to paint the investigators as the illegal actors subverting the state and render them impotent. It is a method not only to shut down the current investigation but also to provide a warning to any new ones. Trump is declaring war on one of the legal mechanisms for running investigations in this country. Yes, we all know that the FISA process is horribly abused but it is the current law. And to attack that entire process as an example of political, anti-democratic behavior is a threat to the entire legal system we should all take very seriously.

Natural Weekends - Fog

Well, we went from near 70 degrees to wind chills in the teens in about 36 hours on the creek. But the warmer days created lots of fog, close to a whiteout on some mornings.

Peter Thiel Does His Bit To Build The Police State For Trump

Peter Thiel is really pulling his weight in helping the Trump/Bannon administration create a budding police state. Apparently using his awesome financial power to sue a media organization into oblivion and strike a fear-inducing blow against press freedom wasn't enough for him.

Now Thiel, through his company Palantir Technologies, is working with Homeland Security to put together a massive database of potential illegal immigrants using information pulled from various government agencies. The system is called Investigative Case Management (ICM). According to the Intercept, "The system provides its users access to intelligence platforms maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and an array of other federal and private law enforcement entities. It can provide ICE agents access to information on a subject’s schooling, family relationships, employment information, phone records, immigration history, foreign exchange program status, personal connections, biometric traits, criminal records, and home and work addresses."

It is important to note that the program was started under the Obama administration with a focus on cross-border investigations by Homeland Security into areas like drug trafficking but its scope has widened recently and now looks to be available to ICE agents focused on immigration enforcement and removal, in other words, deportation.

The system is scheduled to go into operation later this fall and it will greatly enhance the Trump/Bannon administration efforts to target and deport potentially millions of immigrants. In addition, does anyone doubt that a tool like this will not bleed over into targeting US citizens as well at some point in the future. Clearly, the system was initially designed to collect data on target of cross-border infractions which conceivably involve US citizens. But now the scope is so wide it could include any American.

It would really be nice if we could find a way to send Thiel off to his security bunker in New Zealand for a while. On the other hand, with Trump's erratic policies, he may end up there sooner than even he thinks.

Friday, March 3, 2017

New Report Highlights Charging Parents For Child's Jail Time Even When Innocent

One of the many dreadful legacies of the incarceration state that was caused by lead poisoning is charging parents for the time their children spend behind bars. Note that I did not say for the crimes they commit but for simply spending time in jail. At least twenty states or localities within those states charge parents for time their children spend in jail.

States adopted the preposterous idea of charging the parents for their children's interaction with law enforcement during the crime spike from the 1970s to the 1990s. It was yet another example of "tough love" because there was a belief that parents were largely abandoning their unruly and out of control children to the criminal justice system. The idea was that making parents pay for incarceration would somehow make them more "responsible". Of course the fact that the parents probably most effected were also the ones least able to pay would somehow make them even more "responsible" parents. The attitude of the state was encapsulated by the guy who was a collector for the program in Philadelphia who said, "I mean, do we think the taxpayers should be supporting these bad kids". Apparently his idea of "supporting" is holding them in a jail cell.

Now you might, just might, be able to understand that point of view if the child was actually convicted of a crime. But that is not a requirement in order to get billed as a parent. A most egregious example comes from California where, according to the Marshall Project, "When Mariana Cuevas’s son was released from a California jail, after being locked up in a juvenile hall for more than 300 days for a homicide he did not commit, the boy’s public defender, Jeffrey Landau, thought his work was done. The case had been dismissed; his client was free. But at a celebratory dinner afterward, Cuevas, a Bay Area home cleaner, pulled out a plastic bag full of bills and showed Landau that the state had tried to collect nearly $10,000 for her child’s imprisonment. She had been able to pay back only about $50 a month. 'Sure, your son was stolen from you for a year,' said Landau, stunned, 'but here’s what it cost.'" I wonder over the years how many kids were charged as adults but billed as minors.

Needless to say, many poorer families can not afford these kinds of bills. Again according to the report, "When parents fail to pay on time, the state can send collection agencies after them, tack on interest, garnish 50 percent of their wages, seize their bank accounts, intercept their tax refunds, suspend their driver’s licenses or charge them with contempt of court." In some cases, these bills have forced families to sell their homes and driven them into bankruptcy.

Thankfully, exposure of this heinous practice is forcing some states and localities to rethink the program. But there are always those who resist change, especially when it comes to keep the poor and minorities down. The head of Louisiana's Office of Juvenile Justice said, "It increases buy-in. It keeps the parents’ skin in the game." He also added that his department needed the funding the program provides, which, I have a feeling, is far more important than keeping "parents' skin in the game". (I think we should all know by now that when government tells you that you need to have "skin in the game", you are going to get ripped off). The appropriate counterpoint to this facile argument was made pretty succinctly by one parent. "I pay taxes every single year — isn’t that supposed to be what pays for the justice system?"

At some point about 30 years ago, the criminal justice system returned to its Jim Crow roots and began to once again become a profit center for local and state governments. Maybe it had never left. And the concept of innocent until proved guilty also went out the window. Now police can seize your property without even charging you with a crime and bill you for jail time for your child even when the child was completely innocent. And that is the real crime.

Latest Discovery Of Uber's Illegal Activity Is Breathtaking

Uber used a sophisticated tool called Greyball that identified individuals in government who were tasked with monitoring the company in order to evade detection by authorities in cities where they were working illegally. The program was worldwide, stretching from Boston to China to Paris.

If a government employee or investigator hailed a car using Uber in a city in which the company was operating in illegally, the Uber app would show a map with fake Uber cars and any cars the investigator was able to hail ended up cancelling the ride. The Times describes an example in Portland, Oregon where Uber began operating illegally. Investigating "officers like Mr. England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as the miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares. But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues — essentially Greyballing them as city officials — based on data collected from the app and in other ways. The company then served up a fake version of the app populated with ghost cars, to evade capture."

What's more incredible is Uber's statement actually trying to defend the program saying, "This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers." So government officials looking to enforce the law of their localities are opponents to Uber. That tells you all you need to know about the mindset of this criminal enterprise.

How long are we supposed to put up with Uber's blatant flouting of the law. Sexual abuse in its workplace, investigating opposition lawyers up to the point of perverting the course of justice, squeezing its drivers, stealing corporate secrets from its competitors, and disregarding the laws of the localities where it operates. What unethical and illegal things has the company NOT done? The company certainly seems like a perfect target for a RICO case. It's time to shut this serial criminal enterprise down.

Trump Policies Will Create More Crime Via Lead Poisoning

We all know that Trump is going to be a disaster for the environment and there is virtually nothing we can do besides relentless resistance to stop him right now. But you really have to wonder what these people think or if they think at all. People have known about the dangers of lead since 2000 BC. Lead-based additives in wine were first banned in Germany in the late 1600s, though not specifically for health reasons. Lead paint was banned in Australia in 1914 because of the health impacts on children.

None of this had much impact in the US, where lead paint wasn't banned by law until 1970. In addition, we did our part to make sure we poisoned ourselves and the rest of the world by pushing a lead additive to gasoline, essentially spewing the toxic material into the atmosphere for decades. That wasn't phased out in the US until 1990 and other countries, especially in the Mideast, have only just stopped the practice.

The connection between lead and adult violence and criminality is overwhelming and compelling. Just read all the stuff that Kevin Drum has written on the subject. The drop in serious crime this century is highly correlated to the first wave of children who grew up without lead being spewed into the atmosphere. This 15 to 20 year delayed correlation in the drop of violent crime has occurred in many countries that banned leaded gasoline at different times.

With that knowledge, you can only guess what one of new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's first actions was. He signed a rule that would allow the use of lead bullets for hunting in US parks and reserves. This, of course, was something on the NRA's wish list under the guise that lead bullets are cheaper. The reality is there are plenty of unleaded bullets for the same price. It is just part of the NRA's fanaticism that there should be no regulations on anything to do with firearms. To show the extremism of the NRA thinking, an NRA spokesman described the rule prohibiting lead bullets as an "arbitrary attack on our hunting heritage".

While lead bullets in national parks will not have any effect on the crime rate, studies show that the use of leaded bullets kill around 20 million birds and other animals due to lead poisoning each year. 100,000 tons of lead are added to the environment each year through the use of lead by sportsmen, through leaded bullets, lead weights for fishing, and other means. The California condor remains an the endangered species list primarily because of lead poisoning. A study in North Dakota showed that nearly 60% of the meat that deer hunters consume had some lead content.

Zinke's order is bad enough but now Reuters is reporting that, as part of Trump's slashing of the EPA, the funding for lead cleanup will be cut by about 30%. States will be left to pick up the difference, which, of course, many of them will not. As Kevin Drum points out, we continue to deal with the fallout of the incarceration state that we created in response to what was essentially a health epidemic driven by lead poisoning. Rather than rolling back those antiquated rules and laws, the Trump administration intends to roll back one of the programs responsible for massive crime reduction. It's insanity.

Trump's dystopian vision of America is dark and dangerous. He constantly repeats the lie that murders are at a 45 year high when the reality is that they are slightly above historic lows. He depicts inner cities as wastelands of crime and drugs. None of that is true. The cruel part is that his policies may actually create the dystopian world he currently thinks exists.

SXSW Festival Takes A Step Down The Road To A Police State

Hat tip to Atrios for highlighting the story that the famed SXSW festival is now warning foreign acts that come and perform at the festival that they will be reported for deportation if they perform outside the SXSW venue. They have enshrined this warning in their contracts which now say, "SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions. International Artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (WVP) B visa, or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or non-sanctioned SXSW Music Festival DAY OR NIGHT shows in Austin from March 13-19, 2017. Accepting and performing unofficial events may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport, and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US points of entry."

For many international acts invited to the festival, outside shows are a chance to expose their artistic talents to more people and restricting them to just the one SXSW appearance probably doesn't make coming to the festival very appealing.

More importantly, actions like this are the first signs of being sucked in to supporting a police state. SXSW organizers are essentially now on record as potentially being informants for US immigration authorities. The fact that this is coming from SXSW is especially frightening. The US is not East Germany but moves like this are probably how the Stasi state actually began. This is not normal.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Sessions At Odds With Intelligence Agencies; Dem Accuses Comey Of Obstructing Investigation

Jeff Sessions was on Fox News tonight and he just said that he did not know if the Russians interfered in the election in order to help Donald Trump get elected. Tucker Carlson asked, "Did the campaign believe that the Russian government, the Putin government, favored Trump over Clinton in this race?" and Sessions responded, "I have never been told that". Carlson continued, "Do you think they did?” to which Sessions said, "I don’t have any idea, Tucker, you’d have to ask them."

That flies in the face of the unanimous conclusion of all 17 intelligence agencies of the United States. And the fact that the Attorney General of the United States is still disputing this fact is astounding. The Trump administration seems incapable of admitting what everyone knows and that is the Russians did intervene for Trump. The obvious response would be to say that yes, it does appear that the Russians did favor our campaign but we had nothing to do with that. The fact that they are incapable of making that statement only fuels the belief that they did, in fact, have plenty to do with the Russian meddling. The more they deny reality, the worse the story will get.

Meanwhile, James Comey is once again playing favorites by refusing to discuss his investigation with any members of apparently both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Tonight on Rachel Maddow, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, virtually accused Comey of obstructing their investigation and raised the possibility of having to subpoena Comey to testify. The Republicans will never allow that to happen but the fact that Schiff even brings up that possibility shows the level of his frustration with Comey. I am becoming more and more convinced that the FBI is involved in Trump's Russian connections starting way back in the early 2000s and that Comey's blatant favoritism for Trump during the election and his obstruction of any investigation of Trump's Russian ties is somehow related to that. Josh Marshall has a story today that explores the nexus of the Russian mob, Russian oligarchs, the Trump Organization, and the FBI and it is well worth a read.

Sessions Recuses Himself; Kushner Abetted Flynn's Lies

Jeff Sessions recused himself today from any involvement in the investigation into the Trump's campaign connections with Russians. Interestingly, Sessions did not seem to indicate that the recusal would apply to any investigation of connections between the Trump transition team and the Russians that occurred after the election. Sessions' excuse for his blatant lie to Senator Franken was that his meetings with the Russian ambassador were in his role on the Senate Armed Services Committee. That answer may help him avoid perjury charges but is hardly believable. He knew exactly what the question involved and chose to give, at best, a misleading answer. One of those meetings was attended by at least three Sessions' staffers who had to know that the answer was not accurate. They apparently made no attempt to get Sessions to correct the record. In addition, the September meeting came just three days after Obama announced that the crippling sanctions on Russia would stay in place.

And now the New York Times is reporting that Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn also met with that same Russian Ambassador at Trump Tower just days before Obama expelled 35 Russians and imposed further sanctions on Russia over its hacking the US elections. Once again, there may be nothing improper about that specific meeting. But the problem for the Trump administration and now for Kushner is that Flynn maintained that he only had a phone call and a text from the ambassador at the end of December, after Obama's decision. Of course, that turned out to be a lie and forced Flynn's resignation. We already knew that the Trump administration found out that Flynn was lying when Sally Yates briefed them that Flynn's lies subjected him to possible blackmail. The Trump administration stayed silent and did nothing. But we now know that Kushner had to know that Flynn was lying the moment the words came out of his mouth. And he was silent and did nothing.

Every new revelation about the Trump administration lies regarding Russia just screams "cover up". The investigation needs to move from Congress to some kind of independent investigation. Nothing less will be satisfactory.

GOP Crony Capitalism Part II - Carl Icahn

Carl Icahn is an informal adviser to Donald Trump, having been appointed the so-called "regulatory czar" in order, in Trump's words, to help "American entrepreneurs shed job-killing regulations that stifle economic growth". Of course, since Icahn is an informal adviser, he does not have to disclose or divest his current financial interests. That, of course, opens up the opportunity for Icahn to propose cutting regulations that would benefit his own businesses.

And, not surprisingly, the Intercept is reporting that Icahn is already doing just that. The issue revolves around another huge government boondoggle, the requirement that all US gasoline contain some renewable source, usually corn ethanol. If a company does not comply with that renewable standard, it must buy a renewable fuel credit to fulfill that renewable source obligation.

The responsibility for fulfilling the renewable requirement falls on the gasoline refiners, not the gasoline wholesalers or blenders. According to the Intercept, "Icahn is the majority owner of CVR Energy, a refiner which does not have the infrastructure to blend ethanol. As a result, CVR must buy renewable fuel credits to comply with their obligation. In its most recent SEC filing, CVR stated it spent $205.9 million last year on renewable fuel credits. Shifting the point of obligation to blenders would relieve CVR of that expense."

Lo and behold, rumors of a Trump executive order that would shift the burden to the gasoline wholesalers surfaced earlier this week. The very next day, the Trump administration then denied that such an order was in the works. But according to Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen, “We received a call from an official with the Trump administration, informing us that a pending executive order would change the point of obligation from refiners to position holders at the terminal, a potentially small increase in the number of obligated parties, but one which would distribute the obligation more equitably. Despite our continued opposition to the move, we were told the executive order was not negotiable". The open question is who was the official that called Dinneen.

So far, no executive order has been forthcoming but it will be worth keeping an eye on this as well as who will benefit from all the regulations the Trump administration rolls back. And Icahn won't be the first one of Trump's advisers, nor Trump himself, who we will find benefit monetarily from the actions of the Trump administration.

GOP Crony Capitalism Part I - PriceWaterhouse Coopers

Huffington Post has a fantastic article describing how businesses have abused a tax break originally designed to help US manufacturing firms. The provisions were written into the 2004 American Jobs Creation Act law and will reportedly cost US taxpayers nearly $180 billion in the next decade.

More than anything, though, the story is a classic illustration of the revolving door that plagues American government and business. The lynchpin of the story is a man named George Manousos. Manousas was just another guy at PricewaterhouseCooper (PWC), one of the "Big Four" accounting firms, and he specialized in tax law. In 2002, he joined the Bush administration in the Office of Tax Policy (OTP). In his position at the OTP, he helped Congress craft a provision called Section 199 that was designed to benefit US manufacturing companies. Having done that, his role at OTP then allowed him to craft the regulations to implement that provision that allowed for a "domestic production deduction." It allows businesses that engage in certain production activities to claim a deduction of 9% of the income from those activities, resulting in about a 3% tax savings.

The provision was written so broadly you could drive a truck through it and Manousas was the guy who could help businesses drive that truck. In 2006, he returned to PWC as a partner with the express purpose of helping a broad array businesses take advantage of the tax. He was in a perfect position to do so because he had both written the law and the regulations that implemented that law. There was no one in a position to refute his interpretation of the provision, even within the IRS, as Manousas readily admits, saying "When you have taxpayers that have advisers that have the latest and greatest thinking, and the IRS is often playing a little bit of catch-up, it can create some ambiguity about what is the right answer."

With Manousas' help, non-manufacturing companies started to take broad advantage of the provision. Visa saved over $400 million over two years using the tax break. A gift basket company claimed the deduction by saying arranging the fruit in a basket qualified as a manufacturing activity under the provision. Big box hardware stores claimed the deduction because they cut keys. Restaurant chains claimed the deduction because they "manufacture" slices of cake by cutting the full cake into pieces. TV show producers, the networks, and cable companies all claimed the deduction. And, despite IRS challenges, courts have ruled for the businesses precisely because the law is so broadly written. But, according to Manousas, everything is fine. He says, "From my perspective, the incentive works as it was designed to work, in large part." That's because from his perspective, he is banking millions as a PWC partner helping businesses screw the US taxpayer.

As noted above, PWC is one of the Big Four accounting firms. That is pretty much the definition of an oligarchy. And PWC has had its share of scandals over the years, not counting Sunday's Oscar fiasco. PWC was forced to pay Tyco $225 million because of its failure to identify the massive fraud at that company as its auditor. The UK supermarket chain Tesco overstated its profit by over $300 million over two years  againwith PWC as its auditor. PWC was also involved in the Colonial Bank debacle as the accounting firm failed to properly investigate fraudulent mortgage documents provided to Colonial from a company called Taylor Bean & Whitaker. In a twist that only an American business could pull off, Taylor Bean sued PWC, claiming that their failure to vet the mortgages for Colonial allowed Taylor Bean to provide $1.5 billion in distressed and fraudulent mortgages and that fraud eventually brought Taylor Bean down. PWC also had to settle with the New York State Department of Financial Services for helping Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi cover up its laundering of $100 billion for terrorism-sanctioned countries.

PWC is just another serial corporate criminal and enabler of what is essentially broad-based tax evasion by US businesses. But they will just keep on paying their fines and move on to the next scandal. And that's the real scandal.

Ryan Tries Desperate Gamble To Get His "Better Way"

In all the brouhaha about Jeff Session's lying to Congress about his own Russian connections, you may have missed Paul Ryan's latest gambit to pass his "Better Way" agenda by trying to ram an Obamacare repeal bill through the House.

Ryan announced last night that House Republicans will release their bill to repeal and replace the ACA today. The bill will only be available for review by Republican members. There will only be one copy of the bill and it will be held in a room in the basement of the House. Only Republican members, not staff or other experts, will be allowed to read the bill and they need to visit that basement room to do so. The bill will be taken up by the House Energy and Commerce Committee but that committee will vote on the bill WITHOUT waiting for the CBO to score the plan. If the plan passes the committee, which seems certain otherwise Ryan would not have gone down this path, then it will go to the House Budget Committee before it gets voted on by the full House.

It is important to note that the last draft proposal to repeal and replace the ACA did apparently get sent to CBO to score and the numbers that came back were so horrendous that the plan went nowhere. That was just a couple of weeks ago.

The House Freedom Caucus is adamantly opposed to the refundable tax credits that were included in Ryan's last iteration and are probably still in this one. Said the group's chairman Mark Meadows, "The tax credits included in Ryan’s plan will create an entirely new entitlement program". In fact, it largely shifts subsidies for healthcare, in the GOP plan that is the refundable tax credit, from the poor to the rich. As Meadows points out, billionaires like Bill Gates will be getting a tax credit for health care under Ryan's plan. That is not the greatest optics for reforming the healthcare system. In addition, those tax credits will blow a hole in the budget as well, as they come to substantially more money than the current subsidies. Of course, the Ryan plan counts on having millions less people actually on health insurance so in the long run it may be cheaper.

This is apparently the plan that Ryan and McConnell have come up with to get the ACA repealed and then be able to move on the rest of the GOP agenda. Just get a bill, any bill, to the House floor and dare GOP members to vote against it. McConnell will have a slightly more difficult time pulling that trick off on the Senate side.

This is the kind of democracy that the GOP engages in these days. Secret plans not shared with colleagues, a vote on a bill most members won't fully understand, and daring their own party to object. Only two days ago Ryan said this, "This is how the legislative process is supposed to be designed. We’re not hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it on the American people’s front door." You can't make this stuff up.

Sessions Is Latest Victim In Expanding Russia Story

Well, the media's swoon over the "new" Trump after his address to Congress didn't go completely off the rails lasted about 24 hours. Then the news broke that Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador twice during the campaign and lied about that fact twice during his confirmation hearing.

The Washington Post reported last night that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, twice during last year's election campaign. Once was at his Senate office in September and the other occurred at an event at the Republican National Convention in July. While there may or may not have been anything untoward about those meetings, the fact is that Sessions lied in his answer to a question from Senator Al Franken about what Sessions would do as Attorney General if he found out that there were contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Sessions, in his answer, volunteered the following, "I have been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians". This was an outright lie. And the remarkable thing was that the lie was not even a direct response to Franken's question but something Sessions offered on his own.

Now there may be nothing untoward about a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee meeting with the Russian ambassador but a survey of the other 26 members of the committee by the Post got a response from 20 of them and none of those 20 said they had met with the Russian ambassador. Said one staff member, "Members of the committee have not been beating a path to Kislyak’s door. There haven’t been a ton of members who are looking to meet with Kislyak for their committee duties."

As usual with Washington scandals, it's not the original sin that creates the problem, although in this case lying under oath to Congress is pretty bad. But that seems to have been de rigeur in order to join Trump's cabinet. Steve Mnuchin, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt,  and Betsy DeVos all "misled" their confirmation committees. Lying to Congress seemed to be a badge that each nominee must get to prove their loyalty in order to join Trump's cabinet. For Session, like Flynn, the real problem came in his initial denial of this story last night. His spokesman said, "There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer...He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee." That may be a legitimate answer to the meeting in September at the Senate but that surely doesn't apply to the meeting at the Republican National Convention which is a purely political event. A Justice Department official also added, "There’s just not strong recollection of what was said" at the September meeting. I believe that was Flynn's answer as well when his call to the very same Russian Ambassador was uncovered. But that statement turned out to be operative for only a few minutes when Session's office put out another statement saying he "never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false." Yet another version was produced by an unnamed official in the Trump administration saying that there were "superficial comments about election-related news, not substance of their discussion".

It beggars the imagination to think that you would have the Russian Ambassador meet with you in your private office in the Senate and then not remember what was discussed. So that quickly morphed into just saying that whatever as discussed did not involve the election campaign. Just like Flynn, the story changes to fit the facts that are known at the time.

Democrats are asking that Sessions resign but that will never happen. For Sessions himself, it would mean going from a ranking Senator to Attorney General to nobody in record time. But he will now be forced to recuse himself from the investigation going forward because right now Sessions is nominally in charge of essentially investigating himself. Even Republicans will not let that stand and this morning many GOP members are calling for Sessions to recuse himself. The bigger question is whether this will be the final straw that pushes this investigation out of the Congress and into an independent commission or prosecutor.

The Sessions-Russia connection is important because it is possible that it was Sessions who brought the shadowy Carter Page into Trump's orbit as an adviser to the Trump campaign. Page was a guy who was billed as a Russian specialist but no one who ever worked in Russia had ever heard of him. You can read his whole backstory here but he looks exactly like someone Trump would glom onto because he is a fraudster in every sense. But the Trump campaign became remarkably sensitive about Page being a connection to Russia and disowned him last summer.

In addition, the reports of frequent contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia are becoming more widespread. The New York Times reports that British and Dutch intelligence services reported to their US counterparts that people associated with the Trump campaign had various meeting with Russian officials, come close to Putin, in a number of European cities during the election. In addition, US intelligence intercepted communication of Russian officials describing their contacts with associates of Trump and the campaign. The Time story also describes the Obama administration trying to distribute these findings as widely as possible within government in order to make it more difficult for the incoming Trump administration to cover it up.

The Russia story is the stench that will permanently surround the Trump presidency for the next couple of years. Trump may be able to spray some freshener every once in a while, but the stench, like the story, will always return.

Meanwhile, historians will look back on the 2016 election in amazement. Trump's Russian connections were rumored throughout the campaign and the intelligence services were well aware of conversations between the Trump campaign and Russia. But James Comey focused his entire efforts at blowing the Hillary email issue beyond all proportion and the press followed right along. Comey's actions are corrupt and illegal. But the inability of the press to expose and pursue Trump's Russian connections, along with unwillingness to hold Trump and the GOP accountable in general, will go down as one of the great failures of modern American journalism.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

FBI Was Willing To Pay Author Of Russian Dossier As It Debunked It

A story that you might have missed yesterday with all the focus on the Trump address was that the FBI had come to an agreement just weeks before the election to pay a former MI6 officer, Christopher Steele, who had put together the "Russian dossier" on Trump so that he could continue his investigation.

The officer's investigation was being paid for by a private opposition research group that was supporting Hillary Clinton but his funding was set to run out as the election approached. Steele had already previous dealings with the FBI and the Bureau agree to pay him for his work going forward. The agreement fell apart when stories about Steele's dossier appeared in various newspapers.

The fact that the FBI was apparently willing to continue to pay Steele shows that the Bureau believed that parts, in not all, of it could be credible and was willing to let the investigation continue. But it also raises even more questions about the FBI's and James Comey's actions in particular.

First, it seems quite odd that the FBI would essentially be paying someone who was essentially an opposition researcher for Hillary Clinton while the election campaign was still going on. Even Trump supporters should question that decision. On the other hand, when reports about the Russian dossier surfaced in late October, the FBI apparently shot down those stories and James Comey refused to even admit there was an investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. That seems kind of odd considering they were willing to pay Steele to continue his investigation.

Another alternative explanation actually accounts for both of those oddities and is frankly even scarier. Based on Comey's illegal and egregious intervention into the election in support of Donald Trump, it seems more likely that the FBI was paying Steele to accomplish two objectives. First, it allowed the FBI to get the details on the Russian dossier and brief the Trump campaign and administration about it. And, in fact, that is what the FBI did after the inauguration. But the other advantage of paying Steele would be that the Bureau could then credibly say they clearly took his claims seriously while at the same time being able to stifle the investigation. Will James Comey ever be forced to come clean on what he was up to? Not until Democrats control at least the House or the Senate. Get to work, Tom Perez.

Rampant Sexual Abuse At Major Jeweler Highlights Failure Of Arbitration

Yet another company has been accused of rampant sexual abuse, discrimination against women, and raw abuses of power. Last week it was Uber. Today it was Sterling Jewelers, the owners of Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry.

The accusations come out of an ongoing class action arbitration that accuses Sterling of denying women equal pay and opportunities for promotions. The accusations relate to incidents from the 1990s and early 2000s. In its defense, Sterling points to the class action suit saying, "It’s critical to understand that an arbitration claim was brought against Sterling in 2008 that alleged gender discrimination in pay and promotion. None of the 69,000 class members have brought legal claims in this arbitration for sexual harassment or sexual impropriety." That is hardly a ringing denial.

The details of some of the alleged sexual harassment and abuse are truly disgusting. One woman reported that a manager had raped one of her coworkers. Another manager promised a woman a promotion if she would have sex with him. When she declined, he continued to proposition her for years. At regular managers' meetings, male managers preyed on their female coworkers and encouraged them to get drunk. Other men have provided statements in support of the class action stating that the culture in the company objectified women and denied them equal pay and promotions.

And, just like at Uber, it appears that Sterling's HR department was totally dysfunctional. According to the Times, "several women said they had reported sexual harassment to their managers and the human resources department but had been ignored".

This case also highlights the failure of the arbitration system in this country. The plaintiff's lawyers have struggled for years to get this data out into the public eye because of the restrictions imposed in the arbitration process. Even worse, this arbitration case was brought in 2008 and is still continuing over eight years later. Part of the "benefit" of arbitration is supposed to be a relatively quick resolution of the issue. Employment contracts and most of the services we receive include a forced arbitration clause. Arbitration blatantly favors the company over the individual, with some studies showing firms winning up to 95% of the cases. In addition, the forum provides an opportunity for horrible and potentially criminal corporate activity to be "resolved" without any real damage to the company's image or reputation. Just look at this case or how long Roger Ailes at Fox News got away with his rampant sexual abuse by settling the accusations in arbitrated settlements.

The CFPB has banned forced arbitration clauses when purchasing financial services and that ruling has been challenged and is awaiting a hearing from the Supreme Court. Hillary Clinton ran an extending that rule to virtually any service contract that consumers sign. It's not going to happen under the Trump administration, but it really is time end the use of the forced arbitration clause. 

Four Automakers Accused Of Being Complicit In Takata Airbag Coverup

A lawsuit in Florida accuses four major automakers of knowing that the Takata airbags they were using were defective for years and did absolutely nothing about it. The four automakers are Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota.

Takata knew that their airbags were defective and hid that fact from regulators for over a decade. At least 11 deaths and over 100 injuries in the US have been attributed to those defective airbags. Takata reached a pretty sweet plea deal that forced the company to admit guild for providing false data and pay a $1 billion fine. In addition, three company executives are also accused of fabricating data.

This new suit, based on internal company documents, charges that the automakers knew about the problems with the Takata airbags but went ahead with them because of their "inexpensiveness". Honda was intimately involved in the development of the airbags with Takata, especially the propellant that proved to become unstable over time and caused the airbags to explode. In fact, tests at Honda's own facilities resulted in at least two uncontrolled explosions. So Honda was aware of the problem and the other automakers soon found out as well. Toyota deemed Takata's quality as "unacceptable" and one of the airbags exploded at a Toyota test facility in 2004. But the company continued to use the airbags because of cost concerns. Nissan's own expert believed that moisture made the propellant more unstable and suggested adding a drying agent. And Ford chose Takata over the objections of its own expert.

In addition, the suit also objects to the Takata plea deal, saying that the automakers were also complicit in the cover-up and objecting that the $125 million set aside for the victims in the settlement was insufficient.

Sadly, we've all gotten used to businesses cutting corners and outright lying in order to boost the bottom line. But you really have to wonder what drives the people who make these decisions to so cavalierly put people's lives at risk for just a few more bucks. There is something seriously wrong with the morals and ethics of our current business leaders and it doesn't look like it will be fixed anytime soon. And many would argue it has been forever thus.

Uber Boss Argues With And Belittles His Own Driver

You'd think that Uber would be able to stay out of the news just for a day, but apparently that may not be possible. Bloomberg released a video showing CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver about the Uber business model. The driver, who had been working for Uber since 2011, complains about how Uber has dropped its prices and squeezed its drivers, saying "you're raising the standards and dropping the prices". Kalanick reacts angrily to the driver's contention that prices have dropped, saying, "Bullshit!". In fact, since 2012, the Uber fees for Uber Black in San Francisco, which includes this driver, have dropped from $4.90 per mile or $1.25 per mile to $3.75 per mile or $0.65 per minute.

Now most HR and management consultants would think this would be an inappropriate way to deal with complaints from your employees. But, then again, the driver isn't an employee to Kalanick. He's a contractor and I guess contractors can be abused.

The real kicker comes when the driver, having claimed that Kalanick's constantly changing policies cost him $97,000 and drove him into bankruptcy, continues to repeat the truth that Uber has lowered the prices. Kalanick again says that's bullshit and gets out of the car saying, "Some people don't like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!" The irony is beyond belief in that statement because if there is one company who never, ever takes "responsibility for their own shit", which is usually illegal, it's Uber.

Kalanick said today that he is ashamed of his actions and admitted he "must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it." All I can say is the Uber board must be getting ready to throw him over the side, because Kalanick never admits to error, ever.

Uber is a horrible company, run by a horrible man, that exploits and screws the workers that bring it success. Next time, maybe Kalanick should take a Lyft. Take a look a the whole brouhaha. And a shout out to the driver who had the guts to confront Kalanick about what he's done.

Quick Analysis Of Trump's Speech To Congress

You can tell how low the bar is for Donald Trump by the positive reaction to what was really basically a sober campaign speech he gave last night. Yes, by Trump standards it was a tour-de-force. He managed to stay on script and avoid ad-libbing and wandering off topic. He looked and acted Presidential, doing all the obligatory things a President is supposed to do in a speech like this, capped off by his highlighting the appearance of the wife of the Navy Seal who was killed in the Yemen raid. But the speech just rehashed his litany of campaign promises, with no details on how that will be accomplished or funded.

At least he finally did acknowledge the attacks on Jewish cemeteries and the hate crime in Kansas, but, to be honest, that just seemed like an obligatory nod before he got into the heart of his campaign speech. While his tone was much more upbeat, his vision of America was still quite dystopian. He talked about "leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross -- and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate", "gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens", a "beachhead of terrorism...inside America", and a "strategy to dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread across our Nation". If, by the latter, he meant the oligopolies that dominate our economy, I might actually agree with him but that was not who he was talking about. His description of the economy was just as grim (and filled with lies) and "overseas, we have inherited a series of tragic foreign policy disasters."

The speech was also filled with inherent contradictions. In one breath, he talked about curtailing "current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system", claiming that it will lift workers' wages. But a merit based system would bring in more skilled workers, driving Americans out of higher paying jobs. He once again proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, saying that we could have rebuilt our country two times over with all the money we spent fighting wars in the Mideast. Minutes later, he proposed abandoning the military sequester and called for "one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history." He promised "to invest in women's health" but called for the repeal of the ACA only seconds earlier. Trump talked of "American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe", but seconds later said, "America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.  My job is not to represent the world.  My job is to represent the United States of America."

And those are just the internal contradictions in the speech. His praise for the Navy Seal was after blaming his great generals for having "lost" the soldier earlier in the day. His promise in the speech "promote clean air and clear water" comes after repealing the rule that bars mines from dumping waste in our streams and rivers and reinterprets a portion of the Clean Water Rule so that many fewer waterways will be covered by the Clean Water Act.

These addresses to Congress are always a litany of items a President wants or promises to do. This speech was no different in that regard. I won't go through Trump's whole raft of promises, that would be repeating most of his speech. But other Presidents have usually grounded those promises in some kind of reality, highlighting the trade-offs that would need to be made and the priorities that President would like to see the Congress address. This speech had none of that. It promised corporate and middle class tax cuts, repealing the ACA which would also be a massive tax cut, the largest military buildup in American history, and a trillion dollar infrastructure program. There was not one mention of exactly how any of this would be paid for.

Worse for the GOP in Congress, which is in increasing disarray, Trump laid out no priorities for what he wanted to get done. Nor did he provide any specifics on how that must be accomplished. As I have written, for the Republican GOP, the real tax cuts come from repealing the ACA. With those cuts in the bank, they can then go about tax reform that their corporate overlords really want. Trump provided nothing in this speech that will help resolve the conflicts within the GOP to actually get this done.

Matt Yglesias had an interesting take on the speech which I think is largely correct. This was just another performance for Trump, an hour-long version of the Apprentice. As he so aptly puts it, "He [Trump] doesn’t want to be president, he just wants to play one on TV." And that's what this was. His tone may have been less crass and mean, but, by and large, the message was the same as his campaign. His supporters may love it and some may be temporarily persuaded but being President is more than just giving campaign speeches. It actually requires hard work, understanding policy details, and making tough decisions. Trump has shown no inclination for any of that. And I doubt he ever will.

One note about the Democratic response. It was a decent and relatively forceful response from former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear. In reality, avoiding a catastrophe like Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio is about the best you can hope for and Beshear clearly did much better than that. And perhaps he did appeal to some white working class voters that the Democrats lost in the last election. But, when the energized base of your party is primarily under 40 and diverse, I'm not sure that a white guy from a deep red state who is older than Trump and has no future in Democratic politics is the face the Democratic party wants to put forward. Steve Schmidt noted this on MSNBC and asked the obvious question of why it wasn't Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillenbrand, Julian Castro or someone of that ilk who at least represented the future or the party. Tom Perez better get to work quickly.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Trump Gives Another Campaign Speech Tonight

Sorry, I just can't bring myself to do it but others have more courage than I if you want to just live blog it. Here are Trump's prepared remarks for tonight. Besides reiterating his infrastructure plan, it's pretty much all stuff we have heard before. There are lots of promises about all the things he will do with absolutely zero details about how it will all be paid for. I think he really believes that he can just keep giving campaign speeches and everything will be fine. Anyway, here's the transcript:

    Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, the First Lady of the United States, and Citizens of America:
     Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation's path toward civil rights and the work that still remains.  Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.
    Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice –- in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present.
    That torch is now in our hands.  And we will use it to light up the world.  I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.
    A new chapter of American Greatness is now beginning.
    A new national pride is sweeping across our Nation.
    And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.
    What we are witnessing today is the Renewal of the American Spirit.
    Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead.
    All the nations of the world -- friend or foe -- will find that America is strong, America is proud, and America is free.
     In 9 years, the United States will celebrate the 250th anniversary of our founding -- 250 years since the day we declared our Independence.
    It will be one of the great milestones in the history of the world.
    But what will America look like as we reach our 250th year? What kind of country will we leave for our children?
    I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future.
    For too long, we've watched our middle class shrink as we've exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries.
    We've financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit -- and so many other places throughout our land.
    We've defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross -- and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.
    And we've spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.
    Then, in 2016, the earth shifted beneath our feet.  The rebellion started as a quiet protest, spoken by families of all colors and creeds -– families who just wanted a fair shot for their children, and a fair hearing for their concerns.
    But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus -- as thousands of citizens now spoke out together, from cities small and large, all across our country.
    Finally, the chorus became an earthquake – and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first ... because only then, can we truly MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
    Dying industries will come roaring back to life.  Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need.
    Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve.
    Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.
    Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately, stop.
    And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity.
    Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.
    It's been a little over a month since my inauguration, and I want to take this moment to update the Nation on the progress I've made in keeping those promises.
    Since my election, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart, and many others, have announced that they will invest billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.
    The stock market has gained almost three trillion dollars in value since the election on November 8th, a record.  We've saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing down the price of the fantastic new F-35 jet fighter, and will be saving billions more dollars on contracts all across our Government.  We have placed a hiring freeze on non-military and non-essential Federal workers.
    We have begun to drain the swamp of government corruption by imposing a 5 year ban on lobbying by executive branch officials –- and a lifetime ban on becoming lobbyists for a foreign government.
    We have undertaken a historic effort to massively reduce job‑crushing regulations, creating a deregulation task force inside of every Government agency; imposing a new rule which mandates that for every 1 new regulation, 2 old regulations must be eliminated; and stopping a regulation that threatens the future and livelihoods of our great coal miners.
    We have cleared the way for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines -- thereby creating tens of thousands of jobs -- and I've issued a new directive that new American pipelines be made with American steel.
    We have withdrawn the United States from the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership.
    With the help of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we have formed a Council with our neighbors in Canada to help ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to the networks, markets and capital they need to start a business and live out their financial dreams.
    To protect our citizens, I have directed the Department of Justice to form a Task Force on Reducing Violent Crime.
    I have further ordered the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, along with the Department of State and the Director of National Intelligence, to coordinate an aggressive strategy to dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread across our Nation.
    We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth -- and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted.
    At the same time, my Administration has answered the pleas of the American people for immigration enforcement and border security.  By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone.  We want all Americans to succeed –- but that can't happen in an environment of lawless chaos.  We must restore integrity and the rule of law to our borders.
    For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border. It will be started ahead of schedule and, when finished, it will be a very effective weapon against drugs and crime.
    As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens.  Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight and as I have promised.
    To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this question:  what would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?
    Our obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States.  We are also taking strong measures to protect our Nation from Radical Islamic Terrorism.
    According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.  We have seen the attacks at home -– from Boston to San Bernardino to the Pentagon and yes, even the World Trade Center.
    We have seen the attacks in France, in Belgium, in Germany and all over the world.
    It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.  Those given the high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values.
    We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America -- we cannot allow our Nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.
    That is why my Administration has been working on improved vetting procedures, and we will shortly take new steps to keep our Nation safe -- and to keep out those who would do us harm.
    As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS -- a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women, and children of all faiths and beliefs.  We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.
    I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran's ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel.
    Finally, I have kept my promise to appoint a Justice to the United States Supreme Court -- from my list of 20 judges -- who will defend our Constitution.  I am honored to have Maureen Scalia with us in the gallery tonight.  Her late, great husband, Antonin Scalia, will forever be a symbol of American justice.  To fill his seat, we have chosen Judge Neil Gorsuch, a man of incredible skill, and deep devotion to the law.  He was confirmed unanimously to the Court of Appeals, and I am asking the Senate to swiftly approve his nomination.
     Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited.
    Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force.
    Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps.
    More than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working.
    We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.
    In the last 8 years, the past Administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other Presidents combined.
    We've lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved, and we've lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.
    Our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800 billion dollars.
    And overseas, we have inherited a series of tragic foreign policy disasters.
    Solving these, and so many other pressing problems, will require us to work past the differences of party.  It will require us to tap into the American spirit that has overcome every challenge throughout our long and storied history.
    But to accomplish our goals at home and abroad, we must restart the engine of the American economy -- making it easier for companies to do business in the United States, and much harder for companies to leave.
    Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world.
    My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone.  At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class.
    We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.
    Currently, when we ship products out of America, many other countries make us pay very high tariffs and taxes -- but when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them almost nothing.
    I just met with officials and workers from a great American company, Harley-Davidson.  In fact, they proudly displayed five of their magnificent motorcycles, made in the USA, on the front lawn of the White House.
    At our meeting, I asked them, how are you doing, how is business?  They said that it's good.  I asked them further how they are doing with other countries, mainly international sales.  They told me -- without even complaining because they have been mistreated for so long that they have become used to it -- that it is very hard to do business with other countries because they tax our goods at such a high rate.  They said that in one case another country taxed their motorcycles at 100 percent.
    They weren't even asking for change.  But I am.
    I believe strongly in free trade but it also has to be FAIR TRADE.
    The first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, warned that the "abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government [will] produce want and ruin among our people."
    Lincoln was right -- and it is time we heeded his words. I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers, be taken advantage of anymore.
    I am going to bring back millions of jobs.  Protecting our workers also means reforming our system of legal immigration.  The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers, and puts great pressure on taxpayers.
    Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others –- have a merit-based immigration system.  It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially.  Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon.  According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs America's taxpayers many billions of dollars a year.
    Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, will have many benefits:  it will save countless dollars, raise workers' wages, and help struggling families –- including immigrant families –- enter the middle class.
I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws.
If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.
    Another Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, initiated the last truly great national infrastructure program –- the building of the interstate highway system.  The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding.
    America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling.  With this six trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country –- twice.  And maybe even three times if we had people who had the ability to negotiate.
    To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States -- financed through both public and private capital –- creating millions of new jobs.
    This effort will be guided by two core principles:  Buy American, and Hire American.
     Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better Healthcare.
    Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for America.  The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we will do.
    Obamacare premiums nationwide have increased by double and triple digits.  As an example, Arizona went up 116 percent last year alone.  Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky just said Obamacare is failing in his State -- it is unsustainable and collapsing.
    One third of counties have only one insurer on the exchanges –- leaving many Americans with no choice at all.
    Remember when you were told that you could keep your doctor, and keep your plan?
    We now know that all of those promises have been broken.
    Obamacare is collapsing –- and we must act decisively to protect all Americans.  Action is not a choice –- it is a necessity.
    So I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.
    Here are the principles that should guide the Congress as we move to create a better healthcare system for all Americans:
    First, we should ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the healthcare exchanges.
    Secondly, we should help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded Health Savings Accounts –- but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by the Government.
    Thirdly, we should give our great State Governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.
    Fourthly, we should implement legal reforms that protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance – and work to bring down the artificially high price of drugs and bring them down immediately.
    Finally, the time has come to give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across State lines –- creating a truly competitive national marketplace that will bring cost way down and provide far better care.
    Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed.  Every problem can be solved.  And every hurting family can find healing, and hope.
    Our citizens deserve this, and so much more –- so why not join forces to finally get it done?  On this and so many other things, Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country, and for the good of the American people.
    My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women's health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.
    True love for our people requires us to find common ground, to advance the common good, and to cooperate on behalf of every American child who deserves a brighter future.
    An incredible young woman is with us this evening who should serve as an inspiration to us all.
    Today is Rare Disease day, and joining us in the gallery is a Rare Disease Survivor, Megan Crowley.  Megan was diagnosed with Pompe Disease, a rare and serious illness, when she was 15 months old.  She was not expected to live past 5.
    On receiving this news, Megan's dad, John, fought with everything he had to save the life of his precious child.  He founded a company to look for a cure, and helped develop the drug that saved Megan's life.  Today she is 20 years old -- and a sophomore at Notre Dame.
    Megan's story is about the unbounded power of a father's love for a daughter.
    But our slow and burdensome approval process at the Food and Drug Administration keeps too many advances, like the one that saved Megan's life, from reaching those in need.
    If we slash the restraints, not just at the FDA but across our Government, then we will be blessed with far more miracles like Megan.
    In fact, our children will grow up in a Nation of miracles.
    But to achieve this future, we must enrich the mind –- and the souls –- of every American child.
    Education is the civil rights issue of our time.
    I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children.  These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.
    Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather.  As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice.  But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program.  Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college.  Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.
    We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha.
    But to break the cycle of poverty, we must also break the cycle of violence.
    The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century.
    In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone –- and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher.
    This is not acceptable in our society.
    Every American child should be able to grow up in a safe community, to attend a great school, and to have access to a high-paying job.
    But to create this future, we must work with –- not against -– the men and women of law enforcement.
    We must build bridges of cooperation and trust –- not drive the wedge of disunity and division.
    Police and sheriffs are members of our community.  They are friends and neighbors, they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters – and they leave behind loved ones every day who worry whether or not they'll come home safe and sound.
    We must support the incredible men and women of law enforcement.
    And we must support the victims of crime.
    I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims.  The office is called VOICE –- Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement.  We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.
    Joining us in the audience tonight are four very brave Americans whose government failed them.
    Their names are Jamiel Shaw, Susan Oliver, Jenna Oliver, and Jessica Davis.
    Jamiel's 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison.  Jamiel Shaw Jr. was an incredible young man, with unlimited potential who was getting ready to go to college where he would have excelled as a great quarterback.  But he never got the chance.  His father, who is in the audiencetonight, has become a good friend of mine.
    Also with us are Susan Oliver and Jessica Davis.  Their husbands –- Deputy Sheriff Danny Oliver and Detective Michael Davis –- were slain in the line of duty in California.  They were pillars of their community.  These brave men were viciously gunned down by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record and two prior deportations.
    Sitting with Susan is her daughter, Jenna.  Jenna:  I want you to know that your father was a hero, and that tonight you have the love of an entire country supporting you and praying for you.
    To Jamiel, Jenna, Susan and Jessica:  I want you to know –- we will never stop fighting for justice.  Your loved ones will never be forgotten, we will always honor their memory.
    Finally, to keep America Safe we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war and –- if they must –- to fight and to win.
    I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.
    My budget will also increase funding for our veterans.
    Our veterans have delivered for this Nation –- and now we must deliver for them.
    The challenges we face as a Nation are great.  But our people are even greater.
    And none are greater or braver than those who fight for America in uniform.
    We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William "Ryan" Owens.  Ryan died as he lived:  a warrior, and a hero –- battling against terrorism and securing our Nation.
    I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, "Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies."  Ryan's legacy is etched into eternity.  For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.  Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom –- we will never forget him.
    To those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform.
    Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world.  It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.
    We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism.
    But our partners must meet their financial obligations.
    And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that.
    We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific –- to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.
    We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations.
    Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people –- and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.  My job is not to represent the world.  My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict -- not more.
    We must learn from the mistakes of the past –- we have seen the war and destruction that have raged across our world.
    The only long-term solution for these humanitarian disasters is to create the conditions where displaced persons can safely return home and begin the long process of rebuilding.
    America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align.  We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict.
    We want peace, wherever peace can be found.  America is friends today with former enemies.  Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these World Wars.  This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.
    Hopefully, the 250th year for America will see a world that is more peaceful, more just and more free.
    On our 100th anniversary, in 1876, citizens from across our Nation came to Philadelphia to celebrate America's centennial.  At that celebration, the country's builders and artists and inventors showed off their creations.
    Alexander Graham Bell displayed his telephone for the first time.
    Remington unveiled the first typewriter.  An early attempt was made at electric light.
    Thomas Edison showed an automatic telegraph and an electric pen.
    Imagine the wonders our country could know in America's 250th year.
    Think of the marvels we can achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people.
    Cures to illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope.
    American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.
    Millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect.
    And streets where mothers are safe from fear -- schools where children learn in peace -- and jobs where Americans prosper and grow -- are not too much to ask.
    When we have all of this, we will have made America greater than ever before. For all Americans.
    This is our vision. This is our mission.
    But we can only get there together.
    We are one people, with one destiny.
    We all bleed the same blood.
    We all salute the same flag.
    And we are all made by the same God.
    And when we fulfill this vision; when we celebrate our 250 years of glorious freedom, we will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American Greatness began.
    The time for small thinking is over.  The time for trivial fights is behind us.
    We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts.
    The bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls.
    And the confidence to turn those hopes and dreams to action.
    From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears –-
    inspired by the future, not bound by the failures of the past –-
    and guided by our vision, not blinded by our doubts.
    I am asking all citizens to embrace this Renewal of the American Spirit.  I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big, and bold and daring things for our country.  And I am asking everyone watching tonight to seize this moment and --
    Believe in yourselves.
    Believe in your future.
    And believe, once more, in America.
    Thank you, God bless you, and God Bless these United States.