Saturday, May 13, 2017

Not Much "Winning" In Trump's New Trade Deal With China

Remember all that winning we were going to get. Remember that crackdown on Chinese currency manipulation and tariffs against those Chinese goods that had turned us all into losers. Remember all those great trade deals that Trump was going to negotiate. Well you might as well forget it. The most recent trade deal that the Trump administration has signed with China is plain and simple business as usual, despite Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' Trumpian claim that the deal was a "Herculean effort" that "is more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade." Challenge!

Let's go through the ten major items of this "herculean effort". The first item is a Chinese promise to allow beef imports from the US which had been suspended since 2003 due to an outbreak of mad cow disease. The Chinese had already agreed to do this under the Obama administration but this deal provides a firm date for it to actually happen. In return, the US agree to allow Chinese cooked poultry into the US markets. That sounds like more competition for US poultry producers with probably low-priced and toxic Chinese poultry for consumers. Winning!

The Chinese agreed to initiate a study that could eventually lead to the ability of US seed companies to sell GMO seeds to China. In addition, the agreement allowed US liquefied natural gas producers (LNG) to export to China. This could actually be an important market for LNG exports as China does not produce much domestically. Of course, the reason China is desperate for LNG is to wean itself off of coal, meaning a probably corresponding reduction in US coal exports to China. Winning, especially for those coal miners!

The next item allows US credit-rating agencies and electronic payment services to operate in China. In return, the US agrees to allow broader access to the US markets by Chinese financial institutions.

Lastly, The US agrees to send a delegation to a forum in China promoting that government's "One Belt, One Road" investment initiative. This is China's attempt to solidify not only its economic but also its political ties in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. More winning, helping China improve its standing in the world!

You might notice that there is no mention of Chinese currency manipulation but that's because it miraculously stopped the moment Trump became President. According to that brilliant foreclosure fraudster Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, "Right, as soon as the president got elected they went the other way." The reality, of course, is that China hasn't been manipulating its currency for years and actually is currently fighting to keep the renminbi from depreciating.

You'll also note that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in this "herculean effort", which apparently has done "more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade", about steel, aluminum, or auto parts which the Chinese have been accused of dumping on the US market. Nor are they any protections for other areas of US manufacturing that Trump claimed Chinese imports were decimating during the campaign.

For once Trump may have told the truth when he said we would all get tired of winning.

Some Tiny Cracks In The Monolithic GOP Support For Trump

Despite an almost unified front of support for Trump among Republicans in Congress and a refusal to consider moving the Russian investigation to an independent body, there a signs of small cracks in the dam of GOP intransigence.

While every Republican Senator is still committed to seeing the Senate and House committees continue the Russian investigation, at least four of them have expressed openness to a bipartisan commission or special prosecutor at some point in the future. The usual suspects, Lindsey Graham and John McCain have been joined by Lisa Murkowski and, just yesterday, the vulnerable Dean Heller of Nevada.

In the House, some eight GOP Representatives have expressed a similar view. Among them are a number of vulnerable Republican "moderates" (using that term extremely loosely and only in comparison to their radical compatriots), including Barbara Comstock, Mike Coffman, Carlos Curbelo, and Darrell Issa.

Of course, openness to an independent investigation really means nothing at this point, because there is no serious move to actually make that move. But it does reflect an increasing concern among vulnerable Republicans that Trump's Russian problems are serious and a danger to their own future. And, by showing that openness now, they have protected themselves as best they can from whatever might happen in the future. So, while their voices may not be effective in any real way, they are at least a starting point for a more general shift in the GOP position supporting Trump should it ever occur.

More important, however, may be the latest numbers from the most recent Quinnipiac poll. Trump's approval numbers are back down to near his prior low of 35%, registering 36% approval while 58% disapprove. His support among so-called independents has almost totally collapsed, showing a 29%-63% favorable/unfavorable rating. That is an enormous collapse from a 38%-56% number less than one month ago. Support among Trump's supposed base of white working class voters has also dropped precipitously, almost moving into negative territory, with voters split 47%-46%. That is another enormous 10% drop in approval in less than a month. And among white men as a whole, his approval numbers are similarly split 48%-46%, again another five point drop in less than a month.

And even on issues where Trump is believed to be enhancing his popularity, the views of voters are overwhelmingly negative. Disapproval for both Trump's handling of foreign policy and immigration is over 60%. And 58% say that Trump's first 100 days have been a "failure".

Even more worrying than Trump's own cratering poll numbers, are the numbers for Republicans in Congress. The poll showed that voters want Democrats to take back the House in 2018 by a 54%-38% margin. That is over three times higher than the largest differential ever recorded for that question which was 5% back in 2013. And 41% believe the country would be in better shape today if Democrats had won the Senate in 2016, compared to only 27% who said it would be worse,

As Quinnipiac's Tim Malloy said, "There is no way to spin or sugarcoat these sagging numbers." The question is whether numbers like these will begin to frighten GOP members of Congress enough to make them finally take action. Right now, the GOP seems to want to see how much of its agenda it can ram through before Trump's situation becomes untenable. But they still have so much on their plate. There is health care to deal with and then they hope to move on to tax cuts. And in the fall they will still have the budget and the debt ceiling. The danger is, by that time, it may be too late to throw Trump overboard to save them from a Democratic wave in 2018. Meanwhile, Democrats will do everything in their power to slow the legislative process down, using extreme parliamentary maneuvers such as withholding unanimous consent, in order to force the GOP to finally confront Trump.

On the other hand, if the GOP Congress moves too soon against Trump, they endanger not only facing a motivated Democratic base in 2018 but also a large portion of their own base feeling they have been betrayed. The coming months will require GOP leaders in Congress to perform an enormous balancing act between moving on an unpopular agenda and moving against an unpopular President who still remains popular with the GOP base. And even if they manage to survive that high-wire act, nothing may save them from a Democratic wave in 2018.

Natural Weekends - More Spring Blossoms

It's a dreary day here on the creek, with a nor'easter blowing in, and the heavy rains expected later will bring down lots of spring blossoms. So let's enjoy them while we can.

Friday, May 12, 2017

NHL Stanley Cup Conference Finals Predictions

Unfortunately, I think the we've already seen what was essentially the conference finals in the East and the West in the NHL Stanly Cup playoffs this year. Those would be the matchups between and victorious Penguins and the Caps in the East and the victorious Ducks and the Oilers in the West. But they play these games for a reason and Ottawa and Nashville are also here for a reason.

Eastern Conference
Pittsburgh Penguins v. Ottawa Senators - Pittsburgh survived the Caps series despite a multitude of injuries, especially to their back line. Some of those players will be coming back, giving coach Mike Sullivan more depth and options. Ottawa just finds ways to win. They have a strong group of forwards and Erik Karlsson can dominate at both ends of the ice, even with two stress fractures in his ankle. I think the goaltending matchup will pretty much be a wash. That being said, I just think the Pens have too much depth and talent up front with Crosby and Malkin to be stopped in this series. Pittsburgh in 5.

Western Conference
Anaheim Ducks v. Nashville Predators - Anaheim survived a great series with the Edmonton Oilers and their rather youthful defense corps is gaining more and more playoff experience. Experience is not a problem among their forwards and Ryan Getzlaf came up huge in the Oiler series. Nashville has just been solid in every phase of the game. They can play a suffocating 200-foot game and Pekka Rinne has been, well, let's just say impeccable (sorry for that one). At the other end, John Gibson is really the Ducks' weak link but he manages to play well when they need him. It looked like Nashville was getting a little worn down by the bigger, stronger Blues team as the prior series ended. Anaheim will probably have the same effect. The goaltending at each end may keep this closer than it should be. Anaheim in 6.

Game 1 in the Western Conference begins tonight at 9pm EDT.

Sessions' New Crackdown On Drugs Rewards Private Prisons And Suppresses Voting Rights

Attorney General Jeff Sessions decision to today to reverse the Obama-era policies that gave federal prosecutors broad discretion in how they prosecuted drug offenses that carried mandatory minimum sentences accomplishes two goals for the Republican party. The decision means that prosecutors will be forced to push for the maximum sentence they believe they can reasonably achieve in a case. And, despite Sessions' claim that this frees prosecutors from being "micromanaged from Washington", it actually means the opposite, that prosecutors will now have to get permission from the senior US Attorney or from the DOJ itself in Washington in writing if they want try a case  not following these guidelines.

The first goal this reversal today accomplishes is to reward the private prison lobby. Sessions has already reversed the Obama rule on not using private prisons for federal inmates. As you might guess, private prisons in general have much more dangerous conditions than government-run ones. The incidence of corruption and abuse by guards is higher and the quality of those guards is lower. Although not a federal prison, the stories from the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi provide an insight into just how brutal private prisons can be.

In addition, these new policies are yet another from of voter suppression of young minorities. They are the ones most likely to be caught up in these expanded prosecutorial power because they are less likely to be able to afford competent counsel and federal drug enforcement is more likely to focus on their communities. Felony convictions can cause loss of voting rights in many states. Before Terry McAuliffe pardoned thousands of felons who had served their time in Virginia, an estimated 20% of the African American population and 7% of the electorate overall had lost their voting rights due to felony convictions.

In summary, this is a typical Republican policy. It has no basis in science or experience. These maximum sentences have been shown to neither reduce the availability of drugs nor have any significant impact on the crime rate, which is near all-time lows as it is. It does, however, reward a powerful, moneyed interest that has given nearly one-quarter of a million dollars to the Trump inauguration fund. And at the same time, it increases Republican efforts at subverting our democracy by suppressing minority voters. It's a perfect GOP policy.

Democrats Should Draw Up Impeachment Articles Against Jeff Sessions

As Donald Trump goes further and further off the rails, openly admitting obstruction of justice, retreating further into his predilection for authoritarianism, and showing real signs of cognitive breakdown, it is easy to ignore how those around him are also engaging in similar tactics. Yesterday, I wrote about Mike Pence's complicity in Trump's obstruction of justice. But Jeff Sessions is probably an even more egregious example.

At this point, although he won't admit it, Sessions has unilaterally decided to un-recuse himself from the Russian investigation. He was in the meeting with Trump and Rosenstein where the firing of Comey was discussed. Rosenstein's letter outlining the reasons for firing Comey was addressed to Sessions and then forwarded to the White House as the original rationale for Comey's firing. Sessions, like Pence, also spouted the lie about Trump's reason for firing Comey, knowing full well it was not true. And Sessions has said he will be involved in picking Comey's successor. In addition, Rachel Maddow reported last night that Sessions has specifically refused to say whether he is recusing himself from the investigation of Paul Manafort.

This is not what anything like a recusal looks like. It is exactly what obstruction of justice looks like. In fact, it very much looks like Sessions has decided to openly ignore the ethics advice he did receive that forced him to supposedly recuse in the first place. He is now implicated in the obstruction of justice, as is his deputy, Rosenstein, who either wittingly or unwittingly, provided a rationale for obstructing justice at the direction of Sessions. At this point, much of the top DOJ leadership is tainted, and that's being kind. And that's on top of the fact that Sessions was caught lying to Congress about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Kislyak.

There are only two ways for Sessions to lose his job, assuming he won't resign. First, Trump could fire him. That, of course, will not happen because Session's primary job while AG is to keep a lid on the Russian scandal. The other option is for him to be impeached.

At this point, I think the Democrats should at least prepare impeachment articles against Session. It will ratchet up the pressure on the Russia investigation while not going after Trump directly at this time. The argument would be that, if the DOJ refuses to appoint an independent investigation, then some kind of independent authority is needed in the DOJ in order to actually determine what the Russians have actually done and whether there was actual collusion between Trump and the Russians. In addition, that investigation now needs to extend to whether Trump and members of his administration have engaged in an obstruction of justice. Sessions has shown he is incapable of allowing this independent investigation to go forward unimpeded in the DOJ while he is at its helm. He has shown that he will lie to Congress and will violate his pledge and the ethical requirements of his office to recuse himself in order to interfere in the Russian investigation. And that he is willing to engage other members of the DOJ in enabling the obstruction of justice.

Of course, this will never go anywhere in the Republican House right now. But it does force Republican representatives to publicly defend Session, especially if Democrats can force a vote. Unless and until the Republicans in Congress, the ultimate enablers of this cover-up, decide their job is in greater jeopardy that Trump's and/or Sessions', we all know nothing will be done. But that doesn't mean Democrats should abdicate their constitutional responsibility but rather exert as much pressure as they can.

Recap Of Round 2 Of NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

Like the sign of a bad team, my predictions for the second round of the NHL playoffs were close, but could never quite pull out the win. There was some fabulous hockey throughout with stellar goaltending and some controversial calls making the difference between winning and losing. No lead was ever safe, with teams coming back from two and three goal deficits multiple times. And the expectations of two titanic series, one in the East and one in the West, did not disappoint. Here's the wrap-up.

Eastern Conference
New York Rangers v. Ottawa SenatorsResult: Ottawa in 6; Prediction: Rangers in 6;
Ottawa has seemingly been doing it with smoke and mirrors all year long. I believe that, among all the teams that made the playoffs, they had given up the most goals, usually not a recipe for winning playoff-style hockey. But they just keep on winning and can do that playing either an up-and-down score fest or a tight defensive struggle. They literally stole two games in which they were clearly outplayed, just by hanging in there and getting the late goal or goals. That was epitomized in Game 2, where the Rangers gave up multiple 3 goal leads and blew a two goal lead with under 5 minutes left. J.T. Pageau scored those two late goals plus the overtime winner, giving him a record-tying four goal playoff game and Ottawa a 2-0 lead in the series. Craig Anderson matched Lundqvist in net and Erik Karlsson could just take over a game, even with his fractured ankle which required him to sit for part of the series, as he did to put New York away in Game 6. The Rangers, on the other hand, had enormous periods of truly lackluster play. Their inability to hold the lead cost them two games and basically the series. I hate to say it, but this kind of lackluster, timid playoff performance has become a hallmark of Alain Vigneault coached teams, both here in New York and in Vancouver. And you just have to wonder how many more chances poor Henrik Lundqvist has.

Washington Capitals v. Pittsburgh Penguins - Result: Penguins in 7; Prediction: Caps in 7;
Washington looked horrendous in their series against Toronto, from the goalie on out. And when they continued that horrendous play, losing the first two games at home, it looked like a quick series. Down 3-1 in the series, and down a goal heading into third period of that potential elimination game, all of a sudden the Caps started playing like they did all season. They rallied to take game 5 and thoroughly dominated Game 6 in Pittsburgh, setting themselves up for another Game 7 collapse which they provided, losing 2-0 in a game where they reverted to their earlier form. Braden Holtby was downright awful for the first 4 and two-thirds games. His save percentage at that point was down in the .850 range while being totally outplayed by Marc Andre Fleury, who was closer to .950 at that same time. Pittsburgh just kept losing guys all series long, especially on defense and including Sidney Crosby for nearly two games, but every man who came in stepped up and did the job. It was not only an indication of the depth the Penguins have but the great coaching throughout the organization. Crosby, of course, proved why he is still one of, if not the, best player in the league with his great all-around play. Ovechkin, on the other hand, will take most of the heat for this loss. This team was built to win this year and will now be broken up. But the problem for the Caps this year was not Alex. Kevin Shattenkirk was nowhere near the force he should have been and, along with Orlov and others, had some massive defensive lapses. Kuznetsov scored goals for the Caps but never seemed a real force either. But I really think the biggest share of the blame has to go to Vezina candidate Braden Holtby. No team is ever going to win a series with their goalie posting an .850 save percentage in over two thirds of the series.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues v. Nashville Predators - Result: Predators in 6; Prediction: Predators in 6;
This was my only winning prediction and it pretty much followed the script I'd laid out. Jake Allen's spectacular play kept St. Louis in it early in the series but Nashville's pressure at both ends of the ice was simply suffocating. The Blues size looked like it was starting to wear down the Predators as the series went along but, when that happened, Pekka Rinne just held the fort. There were very few times in this series where you really felt the Blues had a chance to win.

Anaheim Ducks v. Edmonton Oilers - Result: Ducks in 7; Prediction: Oilers in 7;
This was by far the most exciting and entertaining series of the four. Too bad it required so many late nights to see. Edmonton won the first two games in Anaheim and headed home with a chance to end this series early. That was when Ryan Getzlaf took over and the Oilers started to leak badly. In Game 4, Edmonton blew an early two goal lead, rallied to send the game to overtime but Jakob Silfverberg won it for the Ducks and tied the series. But the Oilers had plenty of reason to complain as the Ducks go-ahead goal in the 2nd period was a clear case of goalie interference that was not called. That grievance was compounded in Game 5, when the Oilers incredibly blew a three goal lead with under 4 minutes to play and again there was a case for goalie interference on the tying goal, although less clear cut than in Game 4. Again, the Oilers lost in OT. But they rallied to force a Game 7 which Anaheim won in a tight 2-1 game with an early third period goal. John Gibson, who was the usual weak link for the Ducks with his erratic play, actually had his best game of the series in Game 7 and the Ducks young defense corps held up well enough. Connor McDavid was largely held in check but that just opened up the ice for all the other young and talented forwards that the Oilers have, especially Leon Draisaitl and Mark Letestu. As mentioned, Getzlaf was just dominant and the veteran forwards like Perry, Kessler, and even Silfverberg had enough to get it done. The Oilers will regret Games 4 and especially Game 5 where they just could not hold the lead and they certainly had reason to gripe about the officiating. But you expect the young and talented Oilers to be a playoff factor for the foreseeable future. In the end, it was another classic Stanley Cup playoff series.

I'll be back later with predictions for the Conference Finals which begin tonight.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

GOP Takes First Step To Repeal Dodd-Frank, Create Next Financial Crisis

Possibly lost in the outrage and despair of Trumpcare passing the House and Trump's obstruction of justice in firing James Comey is the fact that the House Financial Services Committee took us one step closer to also repealing the Dodd-Frank legislation that increased regulation of the financial services industry in the wake of the financial crisis and the Great Recession that it caused.

The bill that got passed out of the Committee on a strict party line vote would replace a small segment of Dodd-Frank but repeal most of it. It replaces the Orderly Liquidation provision that called for a government-run unwinding of a failed financial institution with a change to the bankruptcy code that would cover large financial institutions. At the same time, it eliminates the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) which was responsible for determining what firms qualified as critically important to the functioning of the financial system and would be subjected to the Orderly Liquidation provision and additional increased regulation. In addition, it repeals the Volker Rule which limits risky trading and the rules, that were never implemented, that a financial adviser must act in the best interests of his/her client. To top it off, the bill would gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In essence, the bill would take us back to the rules that existed before the financial crisis in 2008 and we all know how well those regulations protected us and our economy from Wall Street excesses.

Of course, Wall Street has really cleaned up its act since the financial crisis and these new rules are especially onerous and unnecessary because of that. And Wall Street can also sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. As an example, Deutsche Bank (DB), one of the most egregious serial offenders since the financial crisis, was recently fined $20 million dollars for lax controls which allowed the firm to engage in trading activities that were banned by the Volker Rule. In addition, DB was also fined an additional $137 million for improper sharing of currency positions and coordination of strategies with competitors. This is AFTER an enormous class action suit over price-fixing in the currency markets that resulted in over $2 billion in settlements and after DB settled a mortgage securities investigation for over $7 billion last December. Since the end of the financial crisis, DB alone has paid nearly $14 billion in fines for illegal activity.

And just in case you think that the financial industry has stopped engaging in mortgage fraud, think again. A number of financial firms have received requests for information from the SEC concerning the overvaluation of rental properties that are bundled into bonds sold by Wall Street. The valuation of those properties rely on something call broker price opinions (BPOs) which are critical to determining rental rates and the risk involved in those rental-backed securities. Just as Wall Street firms used to go rating shopping when they securitizing regular home mortgages, firms are now being investigated for going BPO shopping, finding the broker who will provide the highest valuation. Opening up the opportunity for even more unethical behavior in this market is that fact that the people providing these BPOs do not need to be a licensed professional nor do they need to even inspect the interior of the property. It can literally be a drive-by appraisal. Even more disturbing, some the these bonds backed by rental properties are now guaranteed by FNMA.

The banking industry has struggled enormously under the restraints of Dodd-Frank, racking up $171 billion in profits in 2016, an all-time high. The financial industry as a whole continues to be a serial offender, constantly being fined for some egregious violations of current rules and regulations. I guess the good news is that those violations will be substantially reduced when and if most of these Dodd-Frank regulations are repealed.

Democrats Still Face Uphill Fight In 2018 Due To GOP Barriers To Voting

Based on the muted response from Republicans in Congress over Trump's attempt to obstruct justice by firing James Comey, it appears that the only thing that may save our democracy will be a Democratic victory in the House in 2018. But, while the momentum right now is clearly with Democrats, under the current extremely gerrymandered system that Republicans have put in place over the last two decades, it will take a herculean effort from Democrats to actually do that.

According to a Daily Kos study of the 2016 election, Trump won 230 congressional districts compared to Hillary Clinton's 205 districts, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3%. And, making the admittedly unreasonable assumption that every district would move in same proportion as they actually voted, Democrats would need to win the national popular vote by 5.5% in order to actually win the House. A more complex study determined that 55% of congressional districts are drawn to favor Republicans. That doesn't sound too bad until you see that only 10% are drawn to favor Democrats and the remaining one third are drawn to favor neither party. Part of this is simply the fact the Democrats tend to cluster in and around urban centers but a lot is due to GOP gerrymandering. These numbers clearly illustrate the disadvantages that Democrats face in the House, supposedly the most democratic of our nationally elected offices.

Gerrymandering is not the only disadvantage for Democrats. We also have to contend with massive and organized voter suppression. Another study comparing the 2012 and 2016 election found that strict voter ID laws in Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin reduced turnout by 1.7% compared to a 1.3% increase in turnout for states that did not implement voter ID. And, the more predominantly African American a county was, the greater the negative effect on turnout of strict voter ID, with the worst counties seeing a decline in participation of 2.8%. Again, these are significant numbers to overcome. In fact voter ID made truth out of Wisconsin's GOP Representative Glenn Grothman's prediction back in April of 2016 when he said, "Now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is gonna make a little bit of a difference as well." In fact, voter ID in that state is estimated to have suppressed enough votes to carry the state for Trump.

Another problem for Democrats is that the recourse for challenging discriminatory gerrymandering is getting more and more difficult for Democrats, both at the national and state level, with challenges dragging on for years. This has been compounded by the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court to gut the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder case. This ruling also spawned a whole host of new state voting restrictions. The lack of recourse is perfectly illustrated by what is going on in Texas right now where courts recently struck down the congressional and state maps over intentional racial discrimination. Incredibly, this case has been going on since 2011 and these illegal voting districts have been used in two of the last three elections since that time. That means that for half this decade certain voters in Texas have participated in elections where they were illegally discriminated against.

Or take the state of North Carolina where 28 state legislative districts that were drawn in 2010 and in effect for the last three elections have been deemed to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. An attempt to hold a special election in 2017 as some form of redress was squashed by Chief Justice John Roberts in his capacity as overseer of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that covers North Carolina. In other words, for half of the elections in this decade, minorities in these 28 districts have had their voting rights diluted.

Or take the state of Wisconsin again where gerrymandered state districts in 2012 allowed Republicans to not only win a majority of State Assembly seats but actually a third more seats than Democrats, despite the fact that Democrats actually won the popular vote. This case is actually now headed to the Supreme Court and the decision the Court will make will have an enormous impact on what our democracy will look like in the coming years.

Racial gerrymandering can be identified statistically but it is more difficult to identify strictly partisan ones. The plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case are using another unique statistical model to create what is called an efficiency gap which measures what, in effect, are "wasted votes". If the number of wasted votes has a large enough variance from historical patterns, it would be an indication of an illegal partisan gerrymander. Whether or not the Court will buy this argument remains to be seen.

As usual, Justice Kennedy will be the swing vote and he has recognized the importance of somehow reaching a reasonable consensus on gerrymandering, saying, "The ordered working of our Republic, and of the democratic process, depends on a sense of decorum and restraint in all branches of government, and in the citizenry itself." Considering the situation with the State Assembly in Wisconsin and the result in the 2000 and 2016 election, the threat to our democracy is greater now than it has been in decades. It becomes pretty hard to call yourself a democracy when the people winning the majority of the votes continue to "lose" elections or remain in the minority.

So the hurdles for Democrats are enormous in 2018. Beyond the voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering, it is an off-year election which usually results in reduced Democratic turnout. And if those barriers aren't enough for Democrats, Republicans are preparing to set up more hurdles for the next decade. The 2020 census will determine how congressional districts will be reapportioned next ten years. As the minority population continues to grow, an accurate census could be very helpful for Democratic electoral prospects going forward. But the current budget for the 2020 census is woefully underfunded and Republicans are refusing to provide additional funds. That dispute has prompted the current head of the US Census Bureau to resign as he apparently feels he is being set up to fail by the Republicans. Of course, a poorly run census would probably benefit Republicans so it is not surprising to see the GOP trying to foul up the process. The current Republican party is determined to make sure that the only people who can vote or whose votes will count are the ones they choose. It is an interesting view about what a democracy actually entails.

Mike Pence Is Just As Complicit In The Coverup As Trump

Mike Pence went to Capitol Hill yesterday and lied his ass off. He continued to insist that the idea to fire James Comey came from Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein. By yesterday afternoon, even the White House was tacitly admitting that story was, as Ron Ziegler used to say in the Nixon days, "no longer operative".

Pence is reported to have been one of the ones pushing hardest for firing Comey and was in the meeting where Trump decided to do just that. Pence knew full well that Trump had ordered Sessions and Rosenstein to come up with a rationale for firing Comey and also knew full well that Trump was firing Comey solely because of the expanding Russian investigation.

Remember, too, that Pence was head of the transition and was probably well aware of the problems with Flynn. At this point, it is hard to believe that Pence was not aware of Yates' warning about Flynn's contacts with Russians and was open to blackmail by the Russians. And he did nothing about it for 18 days. Yes, there may have been a point when Flynn did lie to Pence, but that was not the real reason that Flynn was fired. It was the revelation of the Yates' warning in the press. For most of that interim period, Pence is just as guilty as Trump in putting our national security at risk by having the nation's top national security office remain in place when compromised.

I admit have a visceral disgust for Pence. His phony serious frown and his condescending tone make my stomach turn. But he is willfully abetting Trump's cover-up and obstruction of justice, along with Spicer, Sanders, and Sessions. And, if and when, Trump either leaves office willingly or not, we should not forget that Pence is equally tainted.

Astronomy Adventure - Hadley Rille And The Apollo 15 Landing Site

The prominent mount range in the middle of this photo of the Moon is the Hadley Rille with the two small craters to its upper left being Autolycus and Aristillus and the larger one to the left just on the terminator being Archimedes. The crater with the central peak at the bottom of the photo on the terminator is Arzachel.

And here is a close up of the Hadley Rille area. Apollo 15 landed near the mountains almost directly across and a little below Archimedes. In addition, the Soviet Luna 2 probe, the first man-made object to ever reach the moon way back in September of 1959, landed just below the midway point between Autolycus and Archimedes.

Scope: Starblast 4.5
Camera: iPhone 6 using NightCapPro with low ISO boost on

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Press Freedoms Further Erode Under Trump's Autocratic Rule

After eliminating the head of the only independent investigation into his and his team's connections to the Russians yesterday, Trump and his crony Jeff Sessions are now on the attack against one of last remaining institutions Trump can not control and that is the free press.

Yesterday, a reporter in West Virginia was arrested for asking questions to HHS Secretary Tom Price. Price and the mistress of "alternative facts", KellyAnn Conway, had just left a private meeting about the opioid crisis and were in a public space in the West Virginia Capitol when a local reporter with the Public News Service West Virginia repeatedly asked Price and Conway whether domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under Trumpcare. According to the reporter, "At some point they decided I was too persistent in trying to ask this question and do my job, so they arrested me." He was charged with "willful disruption of government processes" and part of the complaint against him included the charge that he was "causing a disturbance by yelling questions." As the Committee to Protect Journalists notes, this was a clear attack on press freedom.

Then, today, the President met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a supposedly private Oval Office meeting which was not available to the press. The US press that is. TASS, the official news agency of Russia, was included in that meeting and sent out pictures of Trump meeting with not only Lavrov but also with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. More disturbing, the readout from the White House that the press received about that meeting did not include the fact that Kislyak also attending that meeting. I wish you could have seen MSNBC's Chuck Todd's jaw hit the floor when he heard this report from Andrea Mitchell.

The message to the US press was loud and clear and that is Trump does not and will not respect their constitutional rights. He has and will continue to treat them with contempt. He and his spokespeople lie to the press all the time. The readouts from Trump's private calls and meetings with foreign leaders are not only devoid of real content but also sometimes at odds with reports from the foreign leader and the foreign press. Trump has repeatedly attacked the press and banned certain networks from certain press events. Now reporters are being arrested and the US press is banned from an event but the Russian press is invited. It's all just another part of the burgeoning Trump autocracy.

Biggest Surprises In The Reactions To Comey's Firing

In any normal world, I guess I would be shocked by the overwhelming Republican support for the President's firing of James Comey and reluctance to even admit the possibility of the need for a special prosecutor. But I think we've come to expect that level of complicity from the current GOP.

More surprising to me, however, is the fact that so many in the press or punditocracy continue to leave open the option that Trump actually fired Comey because of his mishandling of the Clinton email investigation. C'mon on. Anyone and everyone knows the reason was the Russia investigation. After all, it was the only investigation that Trump actually mentioned in his letter firing Comey.

Lastly, how hard is it for Democratic politicians and strategists to answer the charge that they were complaining about Comey and demanding his resignation over the Clinton emails but are crying foul now. I mean this is so easy to hit out of the park. The answer is simple. While Democrats may have called for Comey's resignation that is far different from the President firing him. And, even for the few who demanded he be fired, the actual democratic President had enough respect for the separation of powers and the independence of the Department of Justice that he did not heed that call and allowed Comey to remain. Additionally, President Obama was not himself under investigation by the FBI. It's an easy case to make, so make it.

The Move Of An Autocrat - Thoughts On The Comey Firing And The Future Of Democracy

I was in the middle of writing a post about how Sean Spicer's press briefing illustrated the bind that the White House was in over the Flynn investigation. Yates' testimony showed that Don McGahn had been given clear and detailed warnings not only about Flynn's "problematic" underlying behavior, clearly discussing sanctions with the Russians, but also that he was lying about those discussions, exposing himself to blackmail by the Russians. Priebus has already admitted that McGahn briefed the President and then launched his own investigation that turned up no illegal activity. The White House took no action to restrict Flynn's access as NSA after the Yates meeting, indicating that Trump was fine with whatever Flynn had done, presumably because he had done it with Trump's authority. Only when the existence of the Yates meeting became public was Flynn fired but, since McGahn's investigation had essentially cleared Flynn, the rationale for removal became that Flynn had misled Pence.

And then the news broke that Trump had fired Comey.

Let's just recap exactly where we are. Trump associates and possibly Trump himself are the target of a counter-espionage investigation by the FBI. There is a broad range of evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the various meetings with Russians by members of the campaign, the payments from Russians or Russian-associated individuals and firms to members of the Trump campaign, the remarkable timing of Russian hacking at critical points in the campaign, and the remarkable alignment of Trump's campaign rhetoric with the goals of Russia. Whether this body of evidence amounts to proof is what the investigation is all about. CNN reported last night that the FBI investigation had taken a new turn as subpoenas had been issued by the DOJ for associates of Flynn. Testimony from Yates and Clapper indicated that Trump's business dealings with Russians are also the subject of an investigation. That line of inquiry is also now being pursued by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And all this is on top of the fact that Trump was clearly inclined to keep Flynn on as NSA despite his exposure to Russian blackmail.

In addition, there are daily revelations concerning outright corruption by Trump and his family as they exploit the office for personal gain. Just in the last few days, we have seen the Kushner family trying to raise money for their failing office tower in NY by openly selling access to Jared Kushner and Donald Trump. We have seen the State Department hawking Mar-a-Lago as a vacation spot and promoting Ivanka Trump's book. And now Newsweek is reporting that Jared and Ivanka are paying discounted rent in DC to a Chilean landlord interested in a Minnesota copper and nickel mine that could be worth billions. And all this is on top of the trademarks received in various countries, the open attempt by foreigners to curry favor by using Trump's hotels and golf course, and the numerous trips that Trump makes to his own properties that also enrich him. And that is just the corruption we know about.

In the midst of all this, Trump decides to fire James Comey, the man leading the investigation into Trump and his associates. Incredibly, he cites Comey's mishandling of the Clinton email investigation as the rationale for canning Comey. As Mark Warner said last night, that is just "laughable". No FBI Director has ever been fired for conduct relating to his on-the-job performance. Only one other FBI Director has ever been fired and that was for personal enrichment and after a months-long investigation and a detailed report of findings. The firing cites a memo from the Deputy Attorney General (DAG) who was appointed by Trump and who has been on the job for just 13 days. In recommending Comey's termination, the DAG and the AG Sessions ignored DOJ protocol in reaching a conclusion before the ongoing Inspector General's investigation into Comey's actions regarding the Clinton emails had even been concluded. In addition, AG Sessions had supposedly recused himself from anything to do with the Russian investigation and recommending firing the head of that investigation breaks that ethical requirement, even taking into account the clearly bogus reasons for firing Comey had nothing to do with the Russian investigation. Lastly, the new acting head of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who has his own ethical and possibly criminal issues, reportedly supported every decision Comey made in the Clinton investigation. By the logic of Comey's firing, McCabe himself should have to be canned as well.

There is a rashness and vindictiveness in the manner of Comey's firing as well, indicative of the fact that this was a reaction to something that was going on now and having nothing to do with what happened in the summer and fall with Clinton. They fired Comey without notifying him in advance, leaving him speaking in front of a roomful of agents as his firing was announced on the TV screens behind him. In addition, Trump had his personal bodyguard, who has is own legal issues with assaulting protesters during and after the campaign and is now a functionary in the White House, personally deliver the letter terminating Trump to the FBI offices in DC, knowing full well that Comey was in LA. This was personal to Trump and embarrassing Comey and sending his own Praetorian guard to deliver the termination letter was a powerful message of intimidation not only to Comey but to anyone else whose investigation gets too close to the President. In addition, the fact that the administration has no replacement for Comey lined up and, based on their past record, may take months to find a replacement, indicates that this was more of a rash act of anger than any well thought out plan, something that is also a Trump trademark.

The pattern for Trump is now clear. Any independent investigator who gets too close will be eliminated. Preet Bharara, who had jurisdiction over numerous investigations of Trump as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and who Trump promised to retain, was abruptly removed by Trump shortly after he was inaugurated. Sally Yates, who, as acting Attorney General, was overseeing Comey's investigation, was privy to some of its findings, and alerted the White House to the fact that Flynn was compromised, was fired, ostensibly for not defending Trump's travel ban which numerous federal courts have subsequently ruled was unconstitutional. And now James Comey, the man in charge of the only independent investigation into the Trump campaign's collusion with Russia has been fired.

Andrew McCabe, Comey's current replacement, has his own issues as I've mentioned above. He has been attacked by the right because his wife is a politician in Virginia who received donations from Clinton associates in what was portrayed, as only the right wing can, as an effort to buy McCabe's compliance in the email investigation. On the other hand, McCabe also has violated DOJ rules by discussing details of the Russian investigation with Reince Priebus and offering him advice on lines of rebuttal to contemporary news stories. He is as tainted as Comey and, again as I mentioned above, by the administration's logic of Comey's firing, he should be fired as well.

Look, I have no love for James Comey. I have written many times (just yesterday, in fact) about his clear bias against Clinton, his willing or unwitting complicity in what was essentially a coup in our election, and his history of improper and unethical behavior. If Trump's statement that Comey informed him that he was not under investigation is true, Comey was also improperly communicating with Trump about the Russian investigation. But, let's be clear, this firing is not about James Comey, it is about the President of the United States shutting down a counter-espionage investigation of himself and his associates. Let that sink in. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Deputy Press Secretary, made that very clear last night when she said, "It's time to move on". Media reports also indicate that Trump was tired of seeing the Russian investigation on TV all the time and wanted Comey to focus on tracking down leaks that reflected badly on Trump and his administration.

All of Trump's actions when it comes to the Russian investigation indicate guilt. As virtually every revelation comes out, Trump and his administration lie and obfuscate. And the same is true of all his associates involved in the campaign. Manafort, Stone, Page, Flynn, Sessions, and even Trump himself have all been caught in brazen lies about their interactions with the Russians. There is every indication that there is something real here. It seems pretty clear that Trump has been facilitating Russian money laundering for well over a decade now and we have no idea who really owns all the debts he has. And his refusal to release his taxes add to the overwhelming impression of guilt. And he has just shut down the only independent investigation that can produce real, solid evidence of that potential guilt.

This is the move of an autocrat, a man who believes he is above the law. And Trump has actually said that he is above the law on multiple occasions, even boasting he could kill an innocent man in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. He has no respect for our constitutional boundaries, constantly trying to intimidate the judiciary and witnesses who testify against him. The White House smears of a career bureaucrat like Sally Yates as a partisan not only reflects their defensiveness about her underlying testimony but underscores that this administration knows no moral or ethical bounds in defense of their illegality.

The manner in which Comey was fired is also indicative of the autocratic, banana republic nature of Trump. You can see it in the vindictive nature of not informing Comey and sending his personal bodyguard to deliver the news. He is clearly abrogating all the power over Comey to himself and that is not the way our constitutional form of government is supposed to work. In addition, the very reasons for firing Comey are so beyond belief and laughable that no one takes them seriously. But that is part of the point. Not only does it show that Trump has the ultimate power over people, but he has ultimate power over words and truth. The rationale is as big an expression of power as the act itself. I can do whatever I want and give whatever reason I want and I will get away with it. And Trump revels in his ultimate power, as he has only one scheduled event today and that is too meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That is yet another expression of his autocratic power. This is the act of an autocrat.

The future of our constitutional democracy currently rests in the hands of Trump's Republican enablers in Congress. While Democrats and almost all independent analysts agree that the Russian investigation needs to move to both an independent commission AND a special prosecutor, so far we have heard very little support for that from Republicans in Congress. Those Republicans have been destroying our governmental and democratic norms for decades. Another norm has now been broken by the first-ever firing of an FBI Director for his conduct in the course of his duties.

Mitch McConnell's reaction was typical, saying, "Once the Senate receives a nomination, we look forward to a full, fair and timely confirmation process to fill the Director position." Richard Burr, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee is merely "troubled". And here are those noted moderates Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. Graham, "Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well. I encourage the President to select the most qualified professional available who will serve our nation’s interests." And Collins, "The president did not fire the entire FBI. He fired the director of the FBI. And any suggestion that this is somehow going to stop the FBI’s investigation of the attempts by the Russians to influence the elections last fall is really patently absurd." The statements of those two should not only give us pause about the future of health care (they will cave like they always do) but also for the chances to put any check on Trump's autocratic and self-enriching powers.

The press keeps on harking back to Nixon and Watergate and the fall of Nixon and finding comfort that the autocratic Trump will suffer the same fate. But there is a massive difference between the Republican party of Nixon's days and the Republican party today. Then the party had real patriots who were interested in the future of the country and were willing to put their political power on the line for our country and our democracy. Today's Republican party is a radical, extremist party filled with people who are addicted to power for its own sake and beholden only to rich oligarchs who have no interest in our country or our democracy but only in enriching themselves even further. Trump is their leader. These people will not save us. We will have to save ourselves.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Trump Fires Comey!! Blames His Mishandling Of Clinton Emails!!!

MSNBC has just reported that Trump has fired James Comey. Trump reportedly acted on a recommendation from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. With the revelations of Sally Yates and James Clapper yesterday, it is hard to see how this is not another part of the Trump cover-up of the campaign's and transition's Russian contacts.

This virtually demands that the Russian investigation be moved to an independent prosecutor or commission. Otherwise Trump will be able to put someone in charge of his own investigation.

Even more outrageous, the rationale for firing Comey is that he mishandled the Clinton email investigation!!

Comey Steps In It Once Again And Again To Clinton's Detriment

Once again, James Comey has overstated the case against Hillary Clinton to the US public, this time broadly overstating the number of emails that were forwarded to Anthony Weiner's computer by Huma Abedin and, more importantly, misrepresenting the content of those emails.

In his open testimony last week, Comey stated, "Somehow, her emails were being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information...His then-spouse Huma Abedin appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding emails to him for him I think to print out for her so she could then deliver them to the secretary of state."

This is simply not true. Abedin did not have "a regular practice" of forwarding emails to Weiner. In fact, Abedin only handled emails this way on rare occasions. In addition, Comey misrepresented the fact that they contained "classified information". In fact, none of the forwarded emails were marked as classified, although a handful did contain information that was subsequently determined to be classified.

Later in the hearing Comey again declared that Abedin "forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails, some of which contain classified information." That again is untrue. Abedin did not forward hundreds and thousands of e-mails. The majority of emails that were found on Weiner's computer were a result of a backup of Abedin's emails, presumably from her Blackberry. And, again, only a handful of those emails were determined to contain classified information.

The FBI is trying to determine how Comey can correct the record going forward. Apparently another letter to Congress was being considered as a remedy but that idea has been rejected at least for the time being. At least some degree of haste might be appropriate, considering Ted Cruz specifically quoted these false Comey statements in his questioning of Clapper and Yates yesterday.

This again raises the issue of Comey's judgement and actions when it comes to the Clinton email controversy. The decision to write the letter to Congress about Abedin's emails was probably one of the most important decisions that Comey has made in his public life. The fact the he can so badly mischaracterize the evidence in that case at this point in time either points to an enormous ignorance about the facts or a severe case of bias. The former seems highly unlikely and the latter has become the only reasonable conclusion.

In addition, the fact that he can so badly mischaracterize the evidence well after the fact in this case brings into question his credibility when discussing the Russian investigation. Since that investigation is the only hope this country currently has to get to the bottom of the Trump campaign's and transition's contacts with the Russians, it is less than encouraging to have to rely on Comey to do that.

Yates Testimony Creates More Questions And Problems For Trump

As expected, Sally Yates' and James Clapper's testimony yesterday in front of the Intelligence Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee raised more questions than it answered. But the information they provided certainly added additional insight that shows us once again that the default position of Trump and the White House is to lie and obfuscate about anything and everything pertaining to their Russian contacts.

Rather than the simple "heads-up" that Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus characterized Yates' meeting with White House Counsel Don McGahn, Yates had two meetings with McGahn where she laid out in detail her concerns that not only had Flynn engaged in conduct that was "problematic" but had also lied about his contacts with the Russians and was therefore compromised, especially when it appeared that Flynn was lying to administration and specifically Vice President Pence. Yates' visit seemed to be prompted by an FBI interview with Flynn at the White House where it is assumed he lied to those investigators. Yates informed McGahn that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI but refused to characterize his interview when McGahn asked her how Flynn had done. After the initial meeting, McGahn asked for a follow-up meeting where he inquired what the DOJ interest was if administration officials were simply lying to each other and what the legal ramifications for Flynn might be, an interesting line of questioning considering the information that the holder of the most sensitive national security post is potentially compromised. Yates had to once again explain that Flynn's lies opened him up to blackmail by the Russians. McGahn then asked to see the intelligence behind the DOJ's determination. Yates followed up on that request, informing McGahn that the intelligence was ready for his review but she was fired hours after that so that she was unable to confirm whether or not that review ever took place.

Sean Spicer has already confirmed that McGahn immediately briefed the President on Yates' warning and Priebus claims that McGahn investigated Yates' claims about Flynn and found there was nothing to the allegations. Flynn remained on the NSA for another 18 days, even sitting in on a phone call that Trump had with Putin. Flynn, in fact, was not fired until Yates' warning was revealed by the Washington Post.

We also learned yesterday that President Obama had specifically warned Trump not to keep Flynn on in his administration when Trump and Obama met shortly after the election. The White House says that Trump took that as a kind of joke by Obama because of Flynn's bashing of Obama during the campaign. But, knowing Obama, I think we can be pretty assured that Obama gave Trump more than just a throwaway line but backed it up with some kind of explanation. In addition, we also know that Trump transition officials also were worried about Flynn and warned him that his conversations with the Russians were being monitored.

All of these warnings and the admissions by Spicer and Priebus make it almost impossible for Trump to say that he was unaware that Flynn was compromised. And that makes it extremely difficult to explain why Flynn was not only kept on for another 18 days but was able to sit in on the most important national security meetings the administration and Trump had during that period.

Yates' testimony, of course, puts McGahn in the crosshairs of the investigation as well, specifically what did he tell the President, whether he reviewed the material Yates' prepared for him, and what was the extent of his investigation of the allegations against Flynn. Yates was virtually telling McGahn that Flynn was under FBI investigation and we need to know what he did, if anything, with that information. In addition, it has been reported that McGahn never informed Vice President Pence that Flynn had apparently lied to him. That is an interesting omission for someone who is White House Counsel, as opposed to someone who views himself as the President's personal lawyer.

The obvious question that has been out there for a while and Yates' testimony got us no closer to answering is why Flynn was kept on for nearly three weeks after the White House and Trump himself was made aware of the allegations that Flynn was compromised and a potential Russian blackmail target. The details that Yates provided today make it virtually impossible for the White House to claim that the warnings they got were neither alarming nor detailed.

Senator Blumenthal made the other significant point that it seems quite probable that Flynn would still be working as NSA if not for the fact that Yates' warning became public. There is certainly nothing in the public record that indicates that Flynn was reprimanded in any way or restricted in his duties. And, remember, this is the most important national security officer in the country whom the administration has received credible reports is compromised by a foreign power and is lying to senior administration officials about that. The obvious conclusion is that Trump was comfortable with this situation, which, of course, brings his own motivations into question.

Another indication that Flynn was being treated with abnormal consideration by the Trump administration is that he never received the extra security clearance that is required for officials who work in the White House. That clearance is separate from a normal security clearance that is provided by the Department of Defense and lasts for five years. It is far more extensive and comes from the CIA. Flynn never received that clearance from the CIA and it is unclear whether the Trump administration has eliminated the policy that requires it.

Two other points about today's hearing that again raise more questions and could be concerning for Trump. First, Yates would not respond to Graham's question about whether there was any evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russians during the campaign because that would require her to talk about an ongoing investigation. Of course, the evidence is right there for us all to see as Trump publicly asked the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's emails. Whether there was any further tactical coordination remains to be seen.

In addition, if I heard what both Clapper and Yates had to say correctly, Trump's name had come up in intelligence reports and possible investigations regarding his financial interests with Russia in the past, before he became a candidate for President. No one in the media seemed to have picked up on this so I will need to check the transcript to see if I am mistaken.

Lastly, I'll reiterate a point that Malcolm Nance has made repeatedly on MSNBC and that is that the flurry of phone calls that Flynn apparently made to Russian Ambassador Kislyak on the day that the Obama administration announced additional sanctions bears all the earmarks of an asset who has been turned. And, as Nance also points out, standard counter-intelligence procedure dictates that whenever a member of a government department is suspected of being compromised or turned, there is an immediate and thorough investigation into the other members of that department to ensure that there are no accomplices. Of course, we will probably never get that thorough investigation in this case but it speaks to the cavalier attitude that Trump and his team had to the Yates' allegations that this procedure clearly was not followed.

As usual, Trump is offering an incoherent and obfuscating defense. He has latched on to Clapper's statement that he saw no evidence of collusion with the Russians by the Trump campaign. First, this provides no defense for how he treated Flynn after learning he was compromised. And Clapper actually expanded on his answer saying that it was quite possible there was some evidence of collusion but it did not meet the threshold to be included in the intelligence report he produced on Russian hacking. But Clapper's focus is on foreign intelligence and is specifically barred from investigating US citizens directly. More damaging to Trump's point that there was no collusion was Yates' response that she would not respond because of an ongoing investigation, hinting quite strongly that there may very well be evidence of collusion. That investigation is the one being conducted by the FBI which is the agency responsible for counter-intelligence investigations against US citizens. And the fact that Flynn's underlying actions were "problematic" and obviously occurred before Trump was officially sworn as President in also hints at possible subversion of US policy during the transition.

The testimony today further reinforced that fact that the Trump administration continually lies about anything and everything that has to do with their dealings with Russia. That alone raises suspicion. But not even Trump himself can now claim that he was unaware of the serious allegations against Flynn and that he still allowed Flynn to stay in the most sensitive national security post in the country and engage with foreign leaders, including Putin, even with that knowledge. The noose is already pretty tight around Flynn at this point. And Trump has also left himself very little room for any kind of plausible deniability as it was clear he was fully informed about Yates' allegations, so the noose around Trump is tighter as well. It remains to be seen if that will make any difference to his base of support in the country and, more importantly, to his Republican enablers in Congress.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Republicans Offer No Defense For Flynn And Trump, Only Misdirection

I'll have a full post later on the implications of the revelations today on the Flynn story, not only from the testimony of Sally Yates but also that Obama himself warned Trump about Flynn in their meetings shortly after the election. But I just wanted to highlight the weakness of the Republican Senators' line of questioning in the Yates hearing.

Lindsay Graham tried to drive home the point that there has been no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Clapper did confirm that he had not seen any but Yates said that she could not comment. When Graham pressed as to why the DNI did not seem to be aware that there was evidence of collusion, Clapper responded that it may not have risen to the needed confidence level and Yates said he refusal to comment did not mean that there actually was evidence. He then tacks to the unmasking issue and "regrets" that Susan Rice would not testify, setting up the diversion of leaks.

Chuck Grassley seemed to spend  his whole line of questioning focusing on whether Clapper or Yates had leaked or had ever authorized a leak. Cornyn repeats Graham's "concern" about unmasking and leaking and then goes after Yates on not enforcing the Muslim ban, wondering what gave her the right to overrule the Office of Legal Counsel, determine that the ban was not lawful, and refuse to defend the ban in court. Yates responded that Cornyn had specifically asked her when she was appointed assistant Attorney General whether she would refuse to support an unconstitutional order and Yates had responded back then that she would refuse and that is what she did in this instance. Durbin then pointed out that at least three federal courts had determined that Yates was absolutely correct in making the determination that the Muslim ban was unlawful. Round one for Yates.

Ted Cruz started down an even more bizarre line of attack, asking Clapper about what should happen if someone sent thousands of classified documents to an unsecure computer, trying to draw an unspoken parallel with Hillary Clinton and the Abedin emails and implying that whoever would do that should be prosecuted. What that has to do with Flynn and Russia is beyond me, but it's another diversionary tack to be sure. He then went back to Yates refusal to enforce the Muslim ban, specifically quoting a statute that covered the President's authority over immigration. Yates came back and quoted another, later statute that more specifically interpreted the statute that Cruz was citing that stated no visa should be denied on the basis of religion. Yates also pointed out that the Trump administration had specifically directed that the OLC not to inform Yates about the ban until it had been implemented in a highly unusual move. Cruz ended his line of questioning by saying that may be because Yates was "partisan". Round two for Yates; bout ends with TKO.

The remaining GOP Senators, with the exception of Ben Sasse, spent their time either focusing on leaks or on Yates refusal to enforce the Muslim ban. Kennedy tried another bizarre line of attack, trying to show how the Russians tried to interfere in the US Presidential elections in the 1960s and 1980s. He followed with a enormous error, asking Clapper if he had ever leaked classified or unclassified information. Clapper replied that releasing unclassified information is not leaking.

We go to round two of questioning and Graham asked if Clapper he had seen any indications of Trump business dealings in Russia that would be troubling. Clapper responds that nothing like that was included in the intelligence assessment but that he would have to respond about earlier indications in a closed session, implying there was a possible investigation of Trump's Russian business connections before he became a candidate. He then pivots back to how the information that Flynn was lying about his contacts with the Russians was leaked and got to the Washington Post.

Kennedy then asks how Flynn got a security clearance if he was speaking to the Russians. Clapper points out that he already had a security clearance before it was revealed he was talking to the Russians. Kennedy then inquired whether you need an additional level of security clearance to work in the White House. Clapper responds that that's the way he knew it worked in the administrations he worked in but that he did not know how the current White House worked. I'd call that a Kennedy own goal.

Forgetting about the damage that Yates' testimony has done to Trump and his administration, Republican Senators might have actually done more harm than good in this hearing. They spent far more time focusing on unmasking, leaks, and Yates' refusal to enforce the Muslim ban, which only highlighted their unwillingness to deal with the Flynn matter at all. In many ways, their silence on that matter speaks louder than anything else they said today. The focus on unmasking and leaks ignore the fact Flynn was clearly a massive security risk and may have only highlighted the fact that, as Blumenthal pointed out, Flynn may very well still be NSA without the leak to the Washington Post. And the red-herring of Yates' refusal to defend the Muslim ban actually totally backfired as Yates defanged Cornyn by using his own words against him and humiliated Cruz by citing the statute supporting her decision. Additionally, the GOP Senators kept on asking Clapper to provide information that, as a now private citizen, he has no access to but which the current administration could easily provide, prompting the question of why don't these Senators ask the Trump administration to provide those answers. In summary, the hearing, once again, shows that the Republicans will continue to abet Trump in his lawless behavior and that the party itself is in many ways a larger problem than Trump.

None of these Republican deflections did anything to detract from the central story that Yates gave the White House a detailed accounting of the reasons why the DOJ believed that Flynn was severely compromised in the expectation that some action would be taken. As we know, nothing happened for almost three weeks and Flynn was only relieved when Yates' warning became public.

Allowing Trump's Corruption To Become Normal

In a rant yesterday, I wrote about how the media has helped normalize the extreme and radical nature of the Republican party. The anti-democratic nature of the party, their habitual lies, and the extreme cruelty reflected in its most extreme form by the AHCA gets lost in either tactical discussions or a desperate search for false equivalence.

We can see a similar issue with Donald Trump. Let's just take today's news about the Kushner family hawking high dollar investments from rich Chinese in order to sell visas to this country. The pitch they made specifically pointed to the access the family had to the administration and Trump himself via Jared Kushner. In addition, the pitches in China occurred one day after Trump signed an extension of this visa program as part of the budget package that kept the country running through September. The visa program was set to expire with the budget agreement passed last December but was again included in this latest budget agreement. It seems hard to believe that the Kushner family company could organize a pitch like this in China with simply one day's notice so it was obviously tipped off in advance that it would be included in the continuing resolution. The obvious question is who tipped them off.

You might notice the headline to the Washington Post story that I linked to which is "China Pitch By Kushner Sister Renews Controversy Over Visa Program For Wealthy". Of course, the real story in the actual article is the fact the Kushner's sister was directly selling her access to her brother and to Trump administration. Having been caught red-handed doing so, a Kushner Companies spokesman said, "apologizes if that mention of her brother was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors. That was not Ms. Meyer’s intention." Yeah, right.

Then this morning, Trump tweeted this in anticipation of Sally Yates testimony, "Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council." In any other world but the one we live, that would be a clear case of the President trying to intimidate a witness before Congress. But it is just written off as another case of Trump simply mouthing off, a simple case of bad manners. It is not. It is a part of a pattern of trying to influence witnesses and the judiciary similar to his attacks on Judge Curiel before the election and judges who struck down his travel ban afterward.

The media likes to obsess about one issue for a short time and then move on to something else. It is not prepared for the daily corruption and abuse of power that Trump creates, making it hard to stay on focus. The Russia investigation, as important as it is, is the only story which has proven to have legs with the media so far. But the corruption of the Trump administration is an ongoing affair. The ownership stake in the Trump Hotel in DC and elsewhere, the hawking of Mar-a-Lago and Ivanka Trump's book by the State Department, the trademarks provide by foreign countries, the refusal to abide by ethics rules, and the refusal of Trump's family that have official duties to divest have created a situation where rules and norms are being broken every day to enrich Trump and his family.

Stalin once said, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." In many ways, the same thought applies to Trump's corruption. It is so constant and ongoing that it becomes nearly background noise. But it is not normal and it should not allowed to become so.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Radical Party Based On Cruelty And Lies - Another Rant

When Paul Ryan realized his boyhood dream, a dream that has consumed him since he was sitting around a keg in college, to dismantle Medicaid, needlessly kill thousands every year, force thousands of others into bankruptcy, deny needed healthcare to millions of Americans, and give a massive tax break to the 400 families he really represents, he held another keg party in the Capitol with his Republican partners in crime. Then they all went to "celebrate" with their putative leader, an admitted sexual predator and tax evader who possibly colluded with foreign adversary to become President of the United States.

And how did these Republicans defend what they had done? They did what they have done for the last 30 years. They lied. Kevin McCarthy says "No one on Medicaid is going to have it taken away". Steve Scalise assures that everyone who has a pre-existing condition and is currently insured will not lose their insurance and reiterates "Everyone". Another GOP member claimed that 24 million will not lose their insurance but instead choose not to get it, saying, "the CBO said that 24 million people might choose not to stay insured because the mandate is being lifted". Tom Price said today that the $880 billion in Medicaid cuts will "absolutely not" mean that people will lose Medicaid but, in fact, the bill ensured they will "be cared for in a better way". And Raul Labrador denied that the bill would end up killing people, saying, "That line is so indefensible. Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care."

The Republican party started going really off the rails under Reagan. His huge initial lie was that tax cuts would pay for themselves. Republicans still point to that time as proof that they do when, in fact, the cuts blew a massive hole in the deficit and forced that last great reform of the tax code, the Tax Reform Act of 1986, in order to restore much of the lost revenue. He followed that whopper up in the Iran-Contra scandal with "we did not, repeat, did not, trade weapons or anything else for hostages. Nor will we." We were and we did. But beneath those lies there was the increasing demonization of those who least able to protect and fend for themselves. There were the lies about the "welfare queens' and the plight of the poor was because "government is the problem".

Newt Gingrich took up Reagan's mantle in the 1990s, and amped it up into the hyper-partisan attack mode and thirst for power that the GOP has been on ever since. One of his opening bombs was to accuse Democrats of being communists and saying, "When in doubt, Democrats lie". He forced two government shutdowns. And he knew how to use the media. In Newt's world, "The number one fact about the news media is they love fights...When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate." So fights he gave them, not only with Democrats but even with fellow Republicans, once calling Bob Dole "a tax collector for the welfare state." Of course, the fact that Gingrich was personally a moral and ethical mess who used his office as Speaker for personal enrichment and illegal partisan activity did nothing to diminish his popularity with the newly powerful "Christian" conservatives. And the same cruel GOP attitude toward the poor was evident back then but best reflected in his 2011 comment, "Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash', unless it's illegal".

Newt was followed by George W. Bush who was installed by a partisan Supreme Court decision that even its members knew was so bad that they never wanted it used as precedent after the Republican party decided to attack democracy itself and organized a riot in Florida in order to stop the votes from being counted. Bush, of course, lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Mideast and people are still dying today because of that decision. He could cut taxes and wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but still felt comfortable enough to cut veteran's benefits, attack reproductive rights, claim evolution was just a theory, begin the all-out assault on voting rights, and drive millions into poverty. And never forget Katrina.

Meanwhile, the Republican attacks on our democracy continued. Tom Delay was busy illegally gerrymandering the country to make sure the GOP stayed in power and John Roberts and the Supreme Court were doing their part to help by gutting the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans in Congress did their part to obstruct anything and everything that Obama and Democrats tried to get done. And the lies continued. Climate change is a hoax. 47% of the people are freeloaders. Voting fraud is rampant. Tax hikes will cause a recession. The stimulus will cause interest rates to go through the roof. Obamacare has increased the number of uninsured. And all their lies reverberate through the right wing echo chamber of Fox, Limbaugh, and Drudge without any refutation.

And all this led the Republican party to Donald Trump, a congenital liar who blames immigrants and foreigners for everything wrong in the world. A thrice married sexual predator with six bankruptcies who accuses Obama of being a Kenyan and possibly colludes with the Russians to get elected was the culmination of what Republicans have been doing for the last thirty years. The media likes to say that Trump is a different kind of Republican because he bucked the traditional GOP orthodoxy on trade. The reality is that Trump is apotheosis of the thirty years of Republican lies and willful ignorance.

And the party's first successful significant legislative act when they finally have control of the White House and Congress is to pass one of the cruelest pieces of legislation in American history. And they lie about it and they celebrate. And people who call themselves "Christians" will still vote for them. And their voters will still probably believe their lies.

To repeat Thomas Mann and Norm Orenstein from their 2012 book, "The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." It's only gotten worse in the last five years.

Masha Gessen, in writing about the rules for dealing with autocracy, stresses about the need not to normalize the behavior of the autocrat. But we have allowed the extremism of the Republican party to become normalized over the last few decades. Their excesses and outrages are simply accepted as something Republicans do. I don't have the answer about how to change that other than to relentlessly resist and build a movement to vote them out of power until they become de-radicalized, if ever.

Significantly, the media has played an important part in the normalization process. This is Chris Cillizza's comment after, as I say, Republicans in the House passed one of the cruelest pieces of legislation in American history. "When House Republicans secured their 216th 'yes' on the American Health Care Act Thursday, Democrats immediately began taunting their across-the-aisle rivals. 'Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye,' Democrats sang at Republicans. A few Democrats even waved goodbye. The implication was obvious: Democrats believed many Republicans had just cost themselves their political careers by voting for an overhaul of Obamacare. And the DC political class wonders why people hate them. I understand that Democrats not only didn’t like the way this bill was passed — without any estimates on what it might cost or how many people might lose coverage as a result — but also believed the policies contained in it would leave the country and its people considerably worse off. That is a worthy conversation to have. But, that’s not what Democrats were doing. Instead, they were jeering and mocking their colleagues."

Of course, the "tradition" of the opposition party singing that song was started by Republicans when Democrats passed a tax hike in 1993, but Cillizza won't mention that. And Cillizza was quite clear that a significant portion of the DC media class hates Democrats and that alone is far more important than anything Republicans might do, no matter how horrible. The thousands who will die, the millions who will lose coverage, they mean nothing compared to the fact that Democrats might have hurt Republican feelings with a simple chant. That chant is far more significant to Cillizza than the beer party and the premature celebration of GOP cruelty at the White House.

Until we change mainstream reporting like this, force the truth to be told, and win elections, it is hard to see the Republican party changing. After all, they get away with it. Donald Trump, as ignorant and horrible as he is, is just a reflection of the real problem, and that is the Republican party.Not only are Republicans Trump’s enablers, that fact that they could pass such horrific legislation such as the AHCA should make it clear as day that they are a dangerous, radical, and extreme party that must be fully repudiated.

Rant over.

Macron Crushes Le Pen In French Elections

French media is reporting that Emmanuel Macron has won the French election and hopefully has destroyed the momentum of the nativist, populist revolt that has dominated recent elections. If the reports are to be believed, Macron demolished Marine Le Pen by a 30 point margin, 65% to 35%. In addition, the participation rate was much higher than expected, running anywhere between 75% and 80%.

While this is a massive repudiation of Le Pen's anti-EU, nativist, racist, and xenophobic campaign.  Le Pen and her National Front will still be a force in French politics but certainly this election has taken the wind out of her sails. For Macron, although he has promised to structurally reform the French economy, his biggest challenge will be to actually reform the structural problems with the EU. Any action on that front, however, will probably have to wait until after the German elections for that process to begin, if it ever does. If Macron does not eventually get the EU to confront those issues, he will end up in the same place as Hollande and further empower the National Front and Le Pen.

Considering what was at stake, this was a huge victory for traditional liberal values and at least the short term stability of Europe. But the issues, especially the economic ones, that have driven the rise in the popularity of the National Front and Le Pen will still need to be addressed.

As a side note, I wonder if the last-minute release of documents hacked from the Macron campaign actually backfired in this case, driving voters who might have abstained to the polls as a simple act of resisting another attack on democracy. It will be interesting to see if there is any evidence for that.

Vive La France!

Natural Weekends - Spring Blooming

France Goes To The Polls to Save The Western World As We Know It

The French head to the polls today to vote in an election that could unravel the post-war Western world as we know it. Only a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that one election in France could be described in such a manner but autocracy and nativist, racist populism is on the rise and threatens the Western alliances that have prevailed since the end of World War II.

The election of Marine Le Pen, the head of the racist, xenophobic, nativist, anti-EU National Front, could threaten the very existence of the European Union and the potential disintegration of NATO. Her opponent, Emmanuel Macron has come out of nowhere to reach the final run-off  as voters rejected both of France's traditional parties. He is strongly pro-EU and a typical neoliberal believer in the need for "structural reform" which means giving more power to business and weakening workers' protections, leaving the left with no one to vote for. So, in many ways, as it is in many elections, the election will be a choice between to far less than ideal options. But it looks like the fear and disgust with Le Pen will be the determining factor. But we thought the same about Donald Trump, until James Comey intervened.

Macron was up in the polls by an enormous margin, over 20 points, in the latest polls. But just before the blackout period on Friday night which forbids campaigning and election coverage, an enormous dump of material hacked from the Macron campaign was dumped to the public. According to the Macron campaign, much of the material is legitimate but sprinkled in among that data are bogus documents intended to put the campaign in a bad light. Macron has correctly called this hack an attack upon French democracy and it is widely believed the Russians are once again behind it.

The venality of dumping this material at the last minute is that it will reverberate around social media, but, because of the press blackout, it will be very difficult for Macron to refute on a wide public platform that the French press would provide. According to one source, just 5% of the #MacronGate user Twitter accounts accounted to over 40% of the tweets on that hashtag, signaling a concerted and organized effort to push the meme.

Obviously, with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise a far right nativist, racist autocrats in Europe and elsewhere, a victory for Le Pen in France, one of the pillars of the Western alliance, would shake the West to its core. We will have a clear winner sometime tonight and know at least the short term outlook for the future of Europe. It's not only amazing that we have reached this point but that we are also actually having to rely on the French.